Why Elon Musk and right-wing pundits are cheering a doctor with questionable vaccine views

The right's new darling is a Stanford doctor who is mistrustful of mRNA vaccines and lockdowns

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 16, 2022 5:30AM (EST)

Jay Bhattacharya and Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Jay Bhattacharya and Elon Musk (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

You may not know Dr. Jay Bhattacharya's name, but you've likely heard his ideas. That's because some of his lines have become common refrains of many politicians: arguments against pandemic restrictions like vaccines mandates and school closings, which the social media-savvy doctor has railed against. His heterodox views on the pandemic have earned him acolytes, particularly among the right. Among them: Twitter owner and CEO Elon Musk, who met with Bhattacharya on Saturday, and painted Bhattacharya as a man whose views had been wrongly stifled by Twitter prior to Musk purchasing it earlier this year.

Bhattacharya is a Stanford University professor best known for his outspoken opposition to the widespread COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as for his recent decision to work with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. According to a recent batch of Twitter documents released to the public, Bhattacharya had been "shadow-banned" by the social media giant during the pre-Musk era. This means that Bhattacharya's posts were de-emphasized by Twitter staff behind the scenes so other users would be significantly less likely to see what he said. The doctor was placed on a so-called Twitter "blacklist," one which Bhattacharya described as having deemed him a "fringe epidemiologist." Shadow-banning is characterized by critics as a form of censorship, as it effectively silences the target while they usually remain unaware of (and thus unable to remedy) their situation.

The revelation about Bhattacharya's blacklisting has been embraced by conservatives as proof that Twitter suppressing conservative voices led to real-world harm.

Right-wing outlets from Fox News to The Wall Street Journal have lined up to defend Bhattacharya, whose shadow-banning was publicly confirmed after The Free Press reporter Bari Weiss published documents given to her by Musk as part of his "Twitter Files" leaks. Weiss, a former New York Times staffer who left the publication for alleged ideological intolerance, argued the virologist was targeted after he "argued that Covid lockdowns would harm children." Bhattacharya, who publicly speculated the shadow-ban had been prompted by "unspecified complaints Twitter received" about one of his tweets promoting focused protection, also expressed outrage at Weiss' report. Last week he told Fox News' commentator Laura Ingraham that the shadow-ban deprived Americans of the opportunity to judge his ideas on their own merits — and possibly avoid needless mass suffering.

"If we had an open discussion, Laura, the schools would not have closed in the fall of 2020. If we had an open discussion, the lockdowns would have been lifted much earlier because the data and evidence behind them was so bad," Bhattacharya claimed to Ingraham last week.

While Bhattacharya's proposal to encourage COVID-19 "focused protection" has led to him being compared to creationists and climate science deniers, he is not wrong about the mental health effects of lockdowns. There is extensive research demonstrating that the school closings and overall lockdown policies did harm children. For example, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April revealed that the pandemic caused "the largest disruption to education in history" and that children suffered from learning loss as a result. Similarly, a pair of recent studies in the journal Longitudinal and Life Course Studies illustrated that children from vulnerable communities suffered disproportionately in their education and health needs from school disruptions.

Not surprisingly, the revelation about Bhattacharya's blacklisting has been embraced by conservatives as proof that Twitter suppressing conservative voices led to real-world harm in the pandemic.

By meeting with Bhattacharya, Musk has initiated a public discussion about both the validity of Bhattacharya's arguments and the degree to which social media platforms should be allowed to censor potential misinformation. (It also occurred before Musk effectively reversed his "free speech absolutist" position by banning a number of mainstream journalists from Twitter.) Adding to the controversy surrounding the doctor, one of the conservatives with whom Bhattacharya is well-liked is DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, for whom Bhattacharya is currently serving on a panel to investigate COVID-19 vaccines.

So who is the man that Twitter shadow-banned, and why is the right so up in arms about the revelation? 

Born in the Indian city of Calcutta in 1968, Bhattacharya has four degrees from Stanford University (BA, MA, MD and PhD) and currently teaches medicine, health research policy and economics at the same university. As he once recalled to the Stanford Review, he had "always been interested in science generally, particularly chemistry, I was pre-med. I initially only took economics to satisfy an undergraduate requirement but ended up falling in love with it." He also recalled how, since the early days of the HIV pandemic, he has been working in "economic epidemiology," and Bhattacharya's writings reveal interests in both medical science and economic philosophy.

When COVID-19 restrictions became increasingly unpopular, Bhattacharya emerged as a hero to those who objected to them from the start. 

After the pandemic broke out in 2020, Bhattacharya aroused controversy among Stanford liberals as he appeared on right-wing networks like Fox News and Spectator TV to publicly oppose a number of COVID-19 restrictions. Bhattacharya's conservative views are not a secret; he is affiliated with conservative think tanks like the Hoover Institution and the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), the latter of which sponsored one of Bhattacharya's publications calling for focused protection, or a policy of quarantining targeted groups during a pandemic (as opposed to large lockdowns). Known as the Great Barrington Declaration (because it was signed at AIER headquarters in Great Barrington, Massachusetts), the 2020 document had two academically prominent co-authors, Dr. Sunetra Gupta at the University of Oxford and Dr. Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University. It argued that, because the COVID-19 lockdowns were causing psychological and physical harm, only vulnerable populations like the elderly and immunocompromised should be encouraged to stay quarantined. Otherwise, the authors claimed, society should be encouraged to function normally, from schools to businesses.

Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.

When COVID-19 restrictions became increasingly unpopular, Bhattacharya emerged as a hero to those who objected to them from the start. That said, Bhattacharya has gone beyond simply opposing lockdowns, and also advances controversial views about vaccines. By joining DeSantis' Public Health Integrity Committee, Bhattacharya is expressing tacit agreement with the panel's premise that "the Biden Administration and pharmaceutical corporations continue to push widespread distribution of mRNA vaccines on the public, including children as young as 6 months old, through relentless propaganda while ignoring real-life adverse events." Bhattacharya is also agreeing to work with individuals like Florida Surgeon General Joseph A. Ladapo, who has spread misinformation about mRNA vaccines. Additionally, in May he argued the data on whether COVID-19 vaccines save lives is "surprisingly nuanced" and that it led him to believe "public health authorities should have recommended the cheaper adenovector vaccines over the mRNA vaccines all along for most patients." 

In any case, Bhattacharya's opinions about the mRNA COVID vaccines might well be characterized as  health misinformation. The World Health Organization agrees that all forms of COVID-19 vaccines are both safe and effective. Moreover, the number of "real-life adverse events" were minimal and consistent with other vaccines for other viruses. Similarly, COVID-19 booster shots do not have worse side effects than other vaccines, despite alarmism to the contrary. Finally, scientific research shows that regions with higher percentages of vaccination in their populations consistently have lower rates of premature mortality.

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"The most important predictor of life expectancy loss in a large analysis performed in late 2022 across most European countries, the United States, and Chile seems to be lower vaccination uptake, especially in individuals over sixty years old," explained Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. She added that "in the United States, excess COVID-19 mortality was fueled by the states with the lowest vaccination rates."

Gandhi also pointed out that Bhattacharya was invested in older and vulnerable people getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and that "the misinformation ban on Twitter during COVID-19 should be restricted to those who opposed COVID vaccination, especially for those most at risk of severe disease. Dr. Bhattacharya pushed for school openings in a state (California) that was 50 out of 50 in terms of school openings for our youth. This is not misinformation as most public health officials by now have acknowledged that prolonged school closures in this country did harm to our children."

"I will say that Dr. Bhattacharya certainly did not lack for media platforms on which to tout his views during the pandemic, so any argument that he was effectively silenced is ridiculous," Lessler told Salon.

Looking at the Bhattacharya controversy strictly from the perspective of its impact on the doctor's career, Dr. Justin Lessler — a professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Public Health — has little sympathy for his past Twitter predicament.

"I will say that Dr. Bhattacharya certainly did not lack for media platforms on which to tout his views during the pandemic, so any argument that he was effectively silenced is ridiculous," Lessler told Salon by email. "I will also say that most of his arguments about the nature of the disease from those early days have been long since proved wrong."

Salon corresponded with Bhattacharya by email in 2020 for an article about his most famous work, the Great Barrington Declaration. He insisted at the time that there is "an enormous body of evidence that documents the psychological and health harms induced by lockdown, with the poor in every poor country on earth hit the hardest."

Bhattacharya added: "Lockdowns have a sorry track record to date in protecting the vulnerable in the US, Europe, and the Americas."

When asked whether identifying and segregating the necessary proportion of the population may not be achievable for that approach to be effective, Bhattacharya replied by criticizing the experts who claimed that to be the case.

"If an expert decides that shielding the vulnerable is impossible, I'm not surprised that that expert cannot come up with good ideas to do so," Bhattacharya asserted in 2020. "There's a simple explanation: the reliance of public health folks on lockdowns to reduce community spread has stifled their natural creativity in solving problems like this." He also pointed to a number of writings by himself and his colleagues "to provide methods to protect the vulnerable (including in the text of the Great Barrington Declaration itself)."

Bhattacharya added, "I am certain that other ideas are possible, if the public health community were to put its mind to the task, rather than relying on lockdowns to protect the vulnerable. Lockdowns have a sorry track record to date in protecting the vulnerable in the US, Europe, and the Americas."

The pandemic has prompted a renewed public debate over how free speech abuts harmful misinformation, particularly in the realm of public health. Certainly, public health officials with good intentions frequently have sincere disagreements about medical policy. This happens even when there aren't major social crises simmering in the background; it is inevitable that these divisions will be exacerbated during a pandemic. The underlying issue in the debate over Bhattacharya and Twitter is about more than scientific disagreement, however; it is about the intersection of politics and science, and the delicate questions involved with properly curating a public space when pressing and polarizing issues are at stake. It is a question with no easy answers, since those who ask it must choose whether it is worse to censor potentially valid ideas in the name of public safety or allow possible misinformation to harm people in the name of free speech.

Salon reached out to Bhattacharya for this story. After it was published, he replied and clarified his intent with the Great Barrington Declaration as encouraging "focused protection" rather than herd immunity, asking for the phrase "herd immunity" to be replaced in one sentence. He did not reply to any of Salon's other questions.

This story was updated on December 16, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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