When America faced the national tragedy of the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding in 1986, Congress created a commission with independent outside experts, including the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. His iconic demonstration of a faulty O-ring made brittle in the cold as the cause of the Challenger disaster led to fundamental reforms at NASA.
The American people deserve a similar bipartisan, scientifically minded COVID-19 commission so the public-health disaster of the past three years is not repeated.
Due to insufficient protection of older people — whose COVID-mortality risk is more than 1,000-fold higher than that of the young — official counts attribute more than 1 million deaths to COVID in the United States and almost 7 million worldwide. Though people vehemently disagreed about the wisdom of lockdowns, school closures, vaccine mandates and discrimination, masks and so much else, there is near-universal agreement that what we did failed.
By early 2022, about 95% of Americans had contracted COVID despite the harsh countermeasures. A John Hopkins University meta-analysis concluded that lockdowns failed to contain the spread of COVID. At best, they temporarily protected the laptop class, who could work from home while being served by the working class.
The pandemic response itself has wrought tremendous collateral harm. There is now broad agreement that the school closures — in some states running a year or more — have set kids behind in ways that will lead them to worse outcomes as adults, including shorter, poorer lives.
One peer-reviewed paper estimated the spring 2020 closures alone may have cost American children millions of years in life expectancy. The damages are unequally distributed, with poor and minority children suffering the worst learning losses. Hundreds of thousands of kids never returned when schools finally opened.
So the American people deserve answers to fundamental questions about the pandemic. On what empirical basis were schools closed? Did public-health decision-makers consider the harms of their policies? Why do American public-health authorities insist on masking children as young as 2 years old when mask wearing “makes little or no difference” for COVID’s spread?
Perhaps the most perplexing sin of the public-health establishment is that it abandoned an essential commitment to science. For instance, why did public-health authorities ignore clear scientific data that COVID infection-acquired immunity is stronger than vaccine-acquired immunity? Vaccine mandates forced many frontline workers — heroes who contracted COVID early in the pandemic while doing essential work — to choose between their careers and a vaccine that provides less protection than the natural immunity they already had. University presidents forced young male students, including those with excellent immunity from a prior COVID infection, to accept an elevated risk of myocarditis as the price of a college education.
Many, faced with these anti-scientific choices, will never trust public-health authorities or university scientists again, even on vital topics such as the necessity of traditional childhood vaccines.
One reason for the public-health establishment’s systematic failure to arrive at correct answers to basic scientific questions is that the authorities sealed themselves off from outside criticism. Under the banner of combating “misinformation,” government health agencies used their power to collaborate with social-media companies to control the public conversation about COVID science and policy.
Though both of us have decades of experience on infectious-disease epidemiology and policy, the Twitter files revealed that we were both placed on “trends blacklists,” guaranteeing that few would hear our message when the government got the science wrong.
With such a litany of failures, the American people deserve an honest COVID commission to evaluate the response and document all the errors as well as the few successes. Working as part of a team of eight scientists with experience in infectious diseases, public health, epidemiology, immunology, clinical medicine and COVID treatment, we have produced a blueprint with 80 pages of questions that such a commission should ask. We call it the Norfolk Group document, and it is available at no charge at norfolkgroup.org.
We encourage lawmakers, public-health officials, scientists, journalists and the public to read, ask and answer these questions about the most ineffective and damaging public-health response in history.
Martin Kulldorff is a professor of medicine at Harvard University (on leave). Jay Bhattacharya is a professor of health policy at Stanford University School of Medicine. Both are founding fellows of the Academy for Science and Freedom, a Hillsdale College initiative to restore integrity and trust in science and public health.
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