A new think tank is promoting some old, controversial ideas about COVID-19 — and has strong ties to the parties involved in the Great Barrington Declaration.
The Brownstone Institute for Social and Economic Research aims to evaluate the “global crisis” stemming from the policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its stated mission is “constructively to come to terms with what happened, understand why, discover and explain alternative paths, and prevent such events from happening again.”
It currently publishes articles that criticize COVID lockdowns, question vaccine mandates, and describe masking as “an attack on our communal life.”
That may not be surprising given its strong ties to the Great Barrington Declaration, a document published last year that advocated lifting all lockdown restrictions on the young and healthy in a bid for promoting natural immunity.
All three of the scientists who were the lead authors of that declaration are senior scholars or authors at the Brownstone Institute — and other contributors have risen to prominence for raising controversial ideas about the pandemic.
The ‘Spiritual Child’ of Great Barrington
Anti-lockdown rhetoric and an emphasis on “natural immunity” — issues raised by the Great Barrington Declaration — are topics explored by the Brownstone Institute. The institute, in fact, acknowledges its relationship to the Great Barrington Declaration, calling itself “the spiritual child” of the document.
The Great Barrington Declaration touted a strategy called “focused protection,” which encouraged governments to lift lockdown restrictions on young and healthy people while continuing to restrict vulnerable groups. This strategy promoted the spread of COVID-19 in populations where it is less likely to be deadly, encouraging widespread immunity that did not depend on vaccination, the authors argued.
They added that focused protection would mitigate collateral damage of the lockdowns, such as lower childhood vaccination rates, fewer cancer screenings, increased cardiovascular illness, and a worsening mental health crisis.
The Great Barrington Declaration was widely condemned by scientists around the globe, and NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, MD, referred to it as “nonsense” and “very dangerous.” However, the previous White House administration embraced it for a period of time.
The declaration was signed at a summit in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and hosted by the American Institute of Economic Research (AIER) — although the AIER maintained that there were no financial ties. AIER, a libertarian, free-market think tank, has a long history of denying science on climate change.
The former editorial director of the AIER, Jeffrey Tucker, helped to organize the Great Barrington Declaration, and launched the Brownstone Institute in May 2021.
In a phone interview with MedPage Today, Tucker said that AIER “in no way sponsored or backed Brownstone,” but rather Brownstone really is “the child of [his] own obsession.”
Tucker maintains that AIER had no involvement in the founding of the Brownstone Institute. Many of the organization’s key scholars have been involved with either the AIER or the Great Barrington Declaration.
Martin Kulldorff, PhD, co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration, was recently named senior scientific director of the Brownstone Institute. Kulldorff is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who develops epidemiological and statistical models to detect infectious disease outbreaks.
Most recently, Kulldorff has focused on natural immunity, stating that immunity derived from natural infection is stronger than that derived from vaccination. He cited a recent study from Israel that showed the benefits of immunity from past infection — which is in opposition to findings from a recent CDC report showing that vaccine-induced immunity is more protective.
In an article published on the Brownstone Institute’s website announcing Kulldorff’s position, he said that “governments, universities and scientific leaders have failed us during this pandemic, resulting in the biggest public health fiasco in history.”
“With the censoring of long-established public health principles, we need new organizations to safeguard public health for the future,” Kulldorff added. “As part of Brownstone, I am excited to work with other scientists and the public to foster open, rigorous, and intellectual scientific debate. We cannot allow 400 years of enlightenment to end.”
Kulldorff did not respond to a request for comment from MedPage Today.
Joining Kulldorff as a senior scholar at the Brownstone Institute is Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD, of Stanford University, who is also a co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration. Bhattacharya was an early opponent of lockdowns in March 2020, and has continued to advocate for a public health strategy that shields the vulnerable while letting the virus run free among young, low-risk groups.
Recently, Kulldorff and Bhattacharya wrote an op-ed in Newsweek criticizing Fauci’s actions during the COVID-19 pandemic. They said his position on mask mandates ignored natural immunity, and that he erroneously recommended masks even though they do not work.
The pair have also worked with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on the state’s COVID-19 response. Both Kulldorff and Bhattacharya have joined DeSantis’ administration at roundtable discussions on the pandemic. Bhattacharya has become a go-to expert for the administration, most recently standing as an expert witness for the state in lawsuits against its ban on mask mandates.
Sunetra Gupta, PhD, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford and the third co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration, is also an author at the Brownstone Institute. Other authors on the site include Paul Alexander, PhD, a former HHS official under the Trump administration who reportedly sought to alter CDC reports, and George Gilder, a senior resident fellow at AIER. Vinay Prasad, MD, MPH, of the University of California San Francisco also writes articles for the organization.
Social Media Backlash
Gavin Yamey, MD, MPH, professor of global health and public policy at Duke University who has previously criticized the Great Barrington Declaration, has repeatedly blasted the Brownstone Institute on Twitter.
“The Brownstone Institute calls itself ‘the spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration’ & its Scientific Director is a GBD author,” Yamey wrote. “Both push awful vaxx misinformation.”
Yamey has also highlighted the organization’s ties to right-wing, libertarian groups.
While Brownstone’s founder Tucker admitted he has his own political biases that lean libertarian, he maintained that the site aims to publish content that represents all political backgrounds, perspectives, and ideologies.
“We need to open our minds and get insight from wherever we can find,” Tucker said. “That to me is more of a priority than anything else.”
The benefits of widespread masking, evidence about how lockdown restrictions flattened the curve, and COVID vaccines’ high efficacy rates are not readily accessible on the Brownstone website.