Creating Narratives: 24 March 2020, Herd Immunity
Gupta's Oxford Report, Koch playbook step 1: Create alternative evidence
The Astroturfer’s Playbook
In his article “You want it darker?”, the environmental campaigner and journalist George Monbiot explained how the Koch Network operates to influence government policy around the world.
“The Koch's chief political lieutenant, Richard Fink, developed what he called a three-stage model of social change. Universities would produce "the intellectual raw materials". Think tanks would transform them into "a more practical or useable form". Then "citizen activist" groups would "press for the implementation of policy change.
To these ends in the US the Kochs set up bodies in all three categories themselves, such as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the Cato Institute and the "citizens' group" Americans for Prosperity. But for the most part they funded existing organisations that met their criteria. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, think tanks, journals and movements. And they appear to have been remarkably successful.”
Now consider this strategy and how the sceptic movement developed.
Universities produce the intellectual raw materials. Gupta’s herd immunity paper in the UK and the work of Ioannidis, Bhattacharya, and Kulldorf in the US. Thomas’ J-value calculations. Heneghan’s dismissal of aerosol transmission and the effectiveness of masks.
Think Tanks transform them into a more practical form. Pandata was formed in April 2020, Great Barrington Declaration in October 2020, and then Collateral Global, Brownstone Institute, HART etc. Due to the nature of the pandemic these organisations fill the niche of think tanks providing policy proposals.
Citizen activist groups pressing for policy change. By May in the many groups had been set up. In the UK this included Us For Them, Keep Britain Free, Lawyers for Liberty, World Doctors Alliance. In the US the Council for National Policies created the militant America’s Frontline Doctors including members of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons who were also involved in the Truth for Health Foundation. Other example include Doctors for Truth across several European countries and FidK in Germany.
Full article here
Charle’s Koch’s rare public statement in 1978, a few years before the creation of the secretive Council for National Policy sets out the blueprint for how to conduct culture wars.
The Oxford Report Sunetra Gupta’s Herd Immunity
24 March 2020: It’s the first day of lockdown in the UK and we wake up to headlines suggesting the pandemic is almost over. An Oxford University Report appeared in the Financial Times making the bold claim 50% of people in the UK had already acquired substantial herd immunity through the unrecognised spread of covid over more than two months. If true, this would vindicate the Government’s “unofficial herd immunity strategy – allowing controlled spread of infection,” there was no need for lockdown measures or social distancing, due to lack of testing the virus had already passed unnoticed through enough of the population that we were already on the brink of herd immunity, the NHS couldn’t be overwhelmed and covid would burn itself out entirely in two or three months time.
The Oxford Report was treated as a revelation, gaining traction across the media and catapulting the lead author Sunetra Gupta onto the international stage. Thousands of studies and reports have been produced throughout the pandemic, however what raises serious questions about the integrity of the UK media is which academic writings and authors make it to the headlines and which ones don’t get a mention. Rigorous peer reviewed studies from labs considered to be the gold standard for scientific methodology on the impacts of covid on the brain have barely been mentioned in the media, while non-peer reviewed pre-prints with clear cherry picking of data become major subjects of debate which go on to be widely quoted. Unfortunately for all the hope it brought, the Oxford report was of the latter type, except it didn’t include any data.
Gupta’s work came with the prestigious label of Oxford University where she is a professor, perhaps it’s an example of a class riddled system that deference rather than due diligence was given to a paper coming out of such a prestigious institution. The problem wasn’t just that it was a pre-print, non-peer reviewed paper, the problem with the Oxford Report is that it had nothing to do with Oxford University.
While nearly the whole UK media was busy covering the report from Oxford University, investigative journalists from the news outlet Byline Times were busy digging for facts, what did they discover? The report had not been published by Oxford, it had been released via Dropbox and promoted to the media by a PR company which had used Oxford on the report due to the co-authors’ positions at the university.
The PR company was Sugrue Communications run by a man called Caibre Sugrue who is also a non executive director at 100%Open a company which has worked with UK Government agencies including the Ministry of Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory which is the co-owner of the Behavioural Insights Team, otherwise known as the Nudge Unit. Remember it was David Halpern, head of the Nudge Unit who had first spoken about herd immunity in a BBC interview on 11 March as the SAGE member attached to the Cabinet Office. Gupta’s partner, Alex Caccia, a former investment banker owns the company Animal Dynamics. Animal Dynamics is a bio-inspired engineering company which has also received funding from the Ministry of Defence for several contracts totalling nearly £1.2million from 2016 to March 2020, at the time his business partner William Mark Evans, a former member of Goldman and Sachs’ Management Committee, was sitting on the Canadian Government’s Pension Plan Investment Board which invests billions into 79 of the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies.
As the media were trumpeting the paper’s optimistic findings, swathes of the scientific community were raising concerns. Dr Lewis Mackenzie, a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Discovery Fellow commented, “Why on earth has this been sent to the media via a third party PR company instead of the Oxford University press team? Seems very irresponsible to encourage reporting on this topic before the scientific community had a chance to comment and peer review it”
It wasn’t just the unusual manner in which the paper was released to the media or that it hadn’t undergone any review process that faced criticism. The assumptions many more people than estimated had already been infected, the severity of disease was much lower than calculated at the time and the herd immunity threshold would be lower than expected, that were used in the modelling was not supported by the empirical data coming out of Italy and other countries, there was no evidence to support the central assertion infection would produce robust and long lasting immunity.
By 7pm on the same day Oxford University had distanced itself from the report stating the model shouldn’t be used to draw firm conclusions and had been designed to generate discussion on quantifying immunity, but by then it was too late. While its predictions might have failed, the “Oxford Report” was successful in providing a bedrock for the skeptic movement and a springboard for Gupta to become one of its key academics. This is despite Dr Martin Goodson, Chair of the Data Science Section of the Royal Statistical Society, saying the headlines were extremely misleading and that literally no evidence was provided for these assumptions.
In response to criticism, Gupta defended the underlying data, claiming it was based on emerging evidence that hadn’t been seen yet by others making similar calculations but arriving at very different conclusions. Requests to provide this “emerging evidence” received no response from Gupta, that we have never seen the data behind a paper which had such considerable impact on the pandemic debate; in particular its influence on politicians and the media, should be seen as an attack on the foundations of science. Was there ever any emerging evidence? There’s only one other paper I can think of, a week earlier John Ioannidis had released his flawed paper estimating covid deaths in the US would total 10,000.
Criticism of the “Oxford Report” didn’t receive the same prominence in the media as the initial reporting, many media sources not only failed to publish a rebuttal or clarification, they continued to quote the “Oxford University Report” all the way into autumn when Gupta’s co-authored the Great Barrington Declaration. Even as the UK headed into yet another wave in March 2022 many media sources in the UK continued to quote Gupta as an expert voice even while she claimed no one below thirty should be vaccinated and redefined herd immunity as now meaning constant reinfection.
Consider the timeline and connections here, recap:
The day after the UK goes into lockdown, a non-peer reviewed paper claims lockdowns aren’t needed, the paper hasn’t been reviewed and consists only of conclusions, the author refuses to share the data the conclusions are based on. The paper isn’t released through a journal but via dropbox by a PR company whose owner has worked with various Government agencies including the Ministry of Defence and the Government organisation that owns the Behavioural Insights Team. The author’s partner has business links and receives funding from the Ministry of defence. The head of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was a Government advisor on SAGE and to the Cabinet Office, and in an interview spoke about herd immunity and “lockdown fatigue.”
“Lockdown Fatigue” was also a questionable term, hundreds of behavioural scientists produced an open letter questioning where the concept had originated.
The “Oxford Report” had a disproportionate amount of media coverage, the lack of data and the fact it wasn’t actually from Oxford was almost entirely ignored.
The original Financial Times article was amended after complaints it lacked balance, however by then the story was already being reported across the media, not just in the UK.
Enough coincidences to raise an eyebrow? Now consider this, a week after the “Oxford Report” was released Gupta received nearly £90,000 from the Georg and Emily von Opel Foundation to fund research “into the prevalence of Covid-19 in the population.
The billionaire Von Opels have been big Conservative Party donors, giving over half a million pounds to the Party over David Cameron’s leadership, and were given personal access to Cameron at private dinners with the Prime Minister and his family, causing controversy when he was named in the HSBC tax scandal files in 2015. The great grandson of German car maker Adam Opel, Georg Opel is a Swiss national and resident, however he has been on the UK electoral register since 2010 due to his wife Emily being British.
Gupta went on to be a member of South Africa based Pandata with her Great Barrington Declaration co-authors Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, and others of Ioannidis’ group, Trump administration adviser Scott Atlas and Paul Alexander, promoter of alternative treatments Peter McCullough and Rodger Hodkinson of The Truth for Health Foundation and Cambridge Analytica’s former head psychologist Patrick Fagan. Other members include Republican politician Scott Jensen, prolific anti-vaxxers Michael Yeadon and Sucharit Bhakdi, and Ellen Townsend.
In November 2020 Caibre Sugrue hosted Nudgestock, a behavioural science conference with Patrick Fagan as a speaker, in one part of his speech he explained how private companies such as adulterous dating sites could use behavioural science to encourage more people to use their services.
More details on Pandata including Fagan and Nudgestock can be found here.
Alongside other initiatives Gupta also joined Collateral Global, founded by her partner Alex Caccia which also has Bhattacharya and Kulldorff on its board alongside others including Carl Heneghan and Paul Dolan one of the co-authors of the MINDSPACE paper that became the basis for the Behaviour Insights Team.
The MINDSPACE paper set out how behaviour could be influenced through public policy, utilising the principle of Nudge theory where small changes in language or procedures could encourage larger changes, for instance changing organ donation from an opt out rather than an opt in system.
The Von Opels provided another £130,000 in donations to Collateral Global,
What do I think happened in March?
Groups within and around Government had embraced herd immunity as a strategy, the same or similar groups were seeking to persuade Trump to adopt the same strategy. Voices from industry worried about profits and libertarian think tanks ideologically opposed to the principle of big government intervention were lobbying hard against lockdown.
Arguments were made that the economic impact would be too great, the cost of protecting the vulnerable was; in their view, too great. The risks to the “healthy” population were downplayed by the lobbyists, claims that cures had already been found were made by members of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons.
When it turned out the hospitalisation rate was too high and the public at this time wanted to protect their vulnerable family members the UK went into lockdown with little warning after Boris Johnson had claimed this wouldn’t happen, the emerging pro herd immunity lobby worried they were losing control of the narrative and rushed out their counter argument.
Suddenly we no longer had to sacrifice the vulnerable, herd immunity was already on the horizon.
It didn’t matter Gupta wouldn’t publish the data behind her emerging evidence, it didn’t matter basic scientific standards weren’t followed, this wasn’t science, it was political lobbying, they knew the professional contrarians in the media were looking for confirmation bias, and they knew the 24 hour news cycle would sweep any criticism under the carpet.
It was about setting up a counter narrative, getting their foot in the door, they could rely on the tribalism of right wing papers to platform the ideas and people they put forward as experts, and the flawed balancing of opinion done by organisations like the BBC means they’d get almost across the board coverage to develop the narrative.