There was a brief moment in Spring 2020, just a few days into “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” when we had a chance to change our trajectory. A distinct inflection point where if we had done just one thing differently, and caught the crazy COVID coaster before it got locked in its tracks, things could have turned out very differently over these last three plus years.
In the third week of March a secret emergency meeting was scheduled to take place between President Donald Trump, the COVID Task Force, and eight of the most eminently qualified public health experts in the world. This elite group of scientists was slated to present the highest-level decision-makers in our government with an alternative POV to lock down; a much-needed second opinion on national turtling.
We didn’t know it at the time, but this would have been the most important meeting of the COVID-19 era. But it never occurred.
This has been a nagging question ever since July 27, 2020 when BuzzFeed News broke the news in an article by Stephanie M. Lee: “An Elite Group Of Scientists Tried To Warn Trump Against Lockdowns In March.” In her article Ms. Lee framed this aborted meeting as a dodged bullet, and the scientists as unhelpful meddlers, but for many of us the fact that there even was an attempted meeting like this was extremely heartening.
Because for months we had been led to believe that this novel, authoritarian response was unanimous, that “the science was settled” and yet here we find out that some of the most famous scientists in the world didn’t quite agree with “the science.” Not only that, but they had major issues with the process, they questioned the data, and they were extremely concerned about the downstream, long-term effects to our society from locking down. But Lee’s article didn’t even attempt to answer the one big glaring, nagging question left in her article: “Why?”
If you remember back to Late Winter/Early Spring 2020 the entire connected world went from “Hey, no big deal,” to “Hey, what’s going on in Italy?” to “Holy shit, we’re all gonna die!” in a matter of just a few weeks. COVID mania quickly captured us all, and by early March we were suddenly armchair experts on cytokine storms and case counts, and even your aunt Glenda posted that “Flatten the Curve” Washington Post article on Facebook and suddenly we found ourselves on March 15, 2020 watching in slack-jawed horror as Trump, Fauci, and Birx stood up there, telling us their bright idea was to shut down the entire country. For just two weeks they said. To protect our hospitals from “the spike” they said. If we didn’t, they said, two million people would surely die.
And who were we to argue? They had a powerpoint presentation with logos and charts, the laughable Imperial College London model, and of course the force of government behind them.
The national reaction was… curious. Some of us, but not nearly enough, were horrified; viscerally and vehemently opposed to this entire concept on scientific, moral and legal grounds. But we were grossly outnumbered. The vast majority of the population was really scared, and poll after poll indicated they were in favor of these unprecedented, draconian measures. Some of our fellow humans even seemed downright giddy at the prospect of hunkering down indefinitely, until it was “safe” to come out; whatever the shifting daily definition of “safe” was, and whatever the ultimate societal cost.
Although lockdown was presented to us that day as a fait accompli, some of us were undeterred. We spoke up to our friends, families, and coworkers and spoke out on social media, writing letters, holding protests, doing whatever we could to to reason, educate, even plead with our local representatives, leaders and opinion-makers not to continue down this novel path. But to no avail. “Shut up,” they said.
We were just normies, after all, and at the time there were very few actual “experts” on our side. Luckily for us, one of those few was John Ioannidis, an immensely respected physician, scientist, statistician, mathematician, Stanford professor, and writer who was renowned for his works in–get this–epidemiology and evidence-based medicine. Ioannidis was the perfect voice to counter the runaway COVID-19 pandemic response narrative.
And speak up he did. On March 17, 2020 Ioannidis published a groundbreaking STAT article “A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data.” He asked aloud what many of us were wondering privately: would this fiat public health response be a “once-in-a-century evidence fiasco?”
In his article Ioannidis pointed out that all the COVID data to date was actually “of very bad quality,” and we were making monumental decisions daily based on dangerously unreliable information. He also pointed out that the chances of dying for those infected (the Infection Fatality Rate) had to be be much lower than the ridiculous 3.4 percent Case Fatality Rate (CFR) publicly announced by the WHO; his working theory being that many more people had been infected without noticing it, or without being tested.
Ioannidis’ rational and well-reasoned POV in STAT ran squarely against the official narrative, and garnered immediate pushback from “the establishment.” Thankfully, John Ioannidis is a rare brave person, so he promptly ignored the narrative police and submitted his case directly to the top: President Donald J. Trump.
In his letter to the White House Ioannidis warned Trump against “shutting down the country for a very long time and jeopardizing so many lives in doing this” and he requested an emergency meeting to provide all the key stakeholders in the Executive Branch a much-needed second opinion, delivered from a “diverse panel of the top experts in the world.”
This was his letter:
“Dr Ioannidis (bio below) is assembling a group of world renowned scientists who can contribute insights to help solve the major challenge of COVID-19, by intensifying efforts to understand the denominator of infected people (much larger than what is documented to-date) and having a science- and data-informed, targeted approach rather than shutting down the country for very long time and jeopardizing so many lives in doing this. The aim is to identify the best way to both save more lives and avoid serious damage to the US economy using the most reliable data, since the infection rate may be off by a very large factor versus the number of currently documented cases. The scientists are willing to come to the White House personally or join by video conference.”
The proposed panel consisted of:
Jeffrey Klausner, MD MPH – Professor of Clinical Population and Public Health Sciences at USC currently (was Professor at UCLA in 2020).
Art Reingold – Professor of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health at Berkeley.
Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD – Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, research associate at the National Bureau of Economics Research.
James Fowler, PhD – Professor of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health at UCSD
Sten H. Vermund, MD, PhD – Dean of the Yale School of Public Health (2017-2022)
David L. Katz, MD, MPH – founder of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center.
Michael Levitt, PhD – Nobel Prize Winner, Professor of Structural Biology at Stanford.
Daniel B. Jernigan, MD, MPH – Director of the Influenza Division in the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD) at CDC.
On amazingly short notice, Ioannidis had managed to assemble a literal COVID dream team. These scientists were the real deal: actual bonafide “experts” in a landscape of cosplayers and clout chasers.
When I asked Ioannidis about his historic effort to have an open dialogue with the White House and COVID Task Force in March 2020 he replied to me by e-mail:
“The effort was to create a team with top scientists in epidemiology, public health, health policy, population sciences, social sciences, social networks, computational modeling, healthcare, economics, and respiratory infections. We wanted to help the leadership and the Task Force. The Task Force had stellar, world-caliber scientists like Fauci, Redfield, and Birx, but their otherwise amazing expertise did not cover specifically these areas.”
To that end, John Ioannidis didn’t just pick names out of a hat, he curated this group for maximum positive impact. This was not only an extremely talented group, it was an extremely diverse group. They didn’t all agree on what the response to COVID should be, either. But in the interest of faithfully representing all possible angles and views, Ioannidis insisted they take part. In fact Reinhold and Vermund were recruited by Ioannidis precisely because they didn’t agree with him on how to handle things, and none of the eight were political actors. Despite insinuations to the contrary.
“I have absolutely no clue what the members of the team voted! And it really does not (should not) matter.”
The idea of an emergency White House meeting like this was especially radical because at that time any discussion to the contrary was considered taboo. But lockdown was the most important public health decision in modern human history: one that would potentially affect the future of the entire planet. So why not take a moment to hash it out, with some of the smartest and most qualified people on the planet, and make sure we were making the correct decision?
As of March 24, 2020 the calendars had been aligned and this landmark meeting seemed to be a “go.”
“Request has gone in officially, waiting to hear…”
Finally, on March 28 Ioannidis emailed the group:
“Re: meeting with the President in D.C. Have kept asking/putting gentle pressure, I think our ideas have infiltrated the White House regardless, I hope to have more news on Monday…”
Although Stephanie M. Lee of Buzzfeed News insinuated this was Ioannidis’ way of claiming victory, when asked about it he was keen to clarify:
“I am self-sarcastic here, as it was apparent that we were NOT being heard and other people in the team were also self-sarcastic in saying that our proposal had hit on a wall and bounced.”
So what the heck happened between March 24 and March 28? How did this historic meeting go from “on” to “Oh, never mind?”
What on earth could’ve nuked it?
“I initially communicated myself with a White House person, there is no need to create trouble for that person by naming, I believe that person made a well-intentioned effort, even if it did not work. I don’t know if the message did reach Trump or not and I have no clue who cancelled the meeting and why it came to naught.”
A benign answer could simply be that “Shit happens.” After all, people cancel meetings all the time, especially Presidents and their handlers in the middle of a political and public health maelstrom.
But the meeting could have also been canceled for a host of other reasons, especially political ones, and there were in fact a few key events that occurred in those key 4 gap days that may have had an impact:
March 24, 2020 Trump murmured his famous “Open by Easter” viral bite in a walking ‘n talking interview with Fox’s Bill Hemmer. Which, interestingly, is often confused with Trump wanting to open “early,” when in fact Easter 2020 landed on April 15: a full 15 days past the promised end of the first official “15 Days.” So in effect Trump was already promising to extend the lockdown:
TRUMP: …I’d love to have an open by Easter. Okay?
HEMMER: Oh, wow. Okay.
TRUMP: I would to have it open by Easter. I will — I will tell you that right now. I would love to have that — it’s such an important day for other reasons, but I’ll make it an important day for this too. I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.
HEMMER: That’s April 12th. So we will watch and see what happens.
Also on March 24, 2020 India officially declared a national 21-day lockdown, which was longer than our puny #15Days, and their lockdown would affect over 1.3 billion people as opposed to our few hundred million. This was framed as “India takes COVID super-seriously,” of course.
On March 25th, 2020 the US Senate passed the CARES Act, a stonking $2.2 trillion economic “stimulus bill” which promised to go directly to adversely affected individuals, businesses, schools and hospitals and never ever ever be wasted, misappropriated, or brazenly stolen by ne’er-do-wells.
Prince Charles tested positive for COVID-19 on March 25th, 2020 as well. And he died. No, wait, my bad, he experienced mild symptoms and self-isolated with servants at his residence in Scotland.
On March 26, 2020 three pretty big-deal things happened. One, the US Department of Labor reported that 3.3 million people filed for unemployment benefits, making it the highest number of initial jobless claims in American history at the time. It was a big story at the time. But what also happened on March 26, 2020 is that the US became “the country with the most confirmed COVID cases,” officially surpassing China and Italy for that coveted top spot.
March 26, 2020 also featured the WHO’s virtual “Extraordinary Leaders’ Summit on COVID-19” where World Health Organization Director-General Tedros announced:
“We are at war with a virus that threatens to tear us apart – if we let it. Almost half a million people have already been infected, and more than 20,000 have lost their lives. The pandemic is accelerating at an exponential rate…Without aggressive action in all countries, millions could die. This is a global crisis that demands a global response…Fight hard. Fight like hell. Fight like your lives depend on it – because they do. The best and only way to protect life, livelihoods and economies is to stop the virus…Many of your countries have imposed drastic social and economic restrictions, shutting schools and businesses, and asking people to stay at home. These measures will take some of the heat out of the epidemic, but they will not extinguish it. We must do more.”
Could any of these happenings have caused the Trump camp to say, “We’re good. Thanks for the offer anyway, nerds?”
But the next explanation is far more interesting, and more conspiratorial: was there someone in or near the White House that put the kibosh on this thing? Did Fauci and/or Birx convince Kushner to tell Meadows to tell Trump to tell his secretary to nix the meeting?
Hmmmm. If only there was a way to find this out.
“Indeed, I would be the first to love to know what happened!”
In the aforementioned BuzzFeed article “An Elite Group Of Scientists Tried To Warn Trump Against Lockdowns In March” author Stephanie Lee presented only a select few “obtained” emails, to make her case.
So I “obtained” the same emails via FOIA to the public universities, and, really, there’s nothing in those emails than a group of mutually-respected peers desperately trying to coordinate and contribute to this burgeoning national disaster; these were all people desperately trying to do the right thing for the country, and the world. They just wanted to help.
For what it’s worth, these emails are an incredible time capsule documenting the events and societal tenor of that important time, and are presented here, in their entirety. Whatever caused this critically important meeting to be canceled, it’s now quite apparent that it would’ve been better had that meeting taken place.
Because even under the most gracious definitions of “lockdown” our public health reaction to COVID was a colossal mistake. A massive abysmal failure, based on any neutral metric. Lockdown failed on stopping the virus, it failed on overall health outcomes, it failed on the economy, it failed on “equity,” it failed our kids and perhaps most tellingly it failed our principles. In the future there will be entire sections of libraries dedicated to the mind-boggling extent of the destruction caused by these panicked, pseudoscientific public-health decisions. Decisions that were forced on us, without even so much as a show vote.
Much less a proper discussion. And that’s what this meeting would have been: a discussion. An opportunity to expose the Leader of the Free World to a different and better set of ideas on how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact is that, in the third week of March 2020, we were all unceremoniously denied a basic medical, human right: an informed second opinion.Responsive-Records-23-2148
Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
For reprints, please set the canonical link back to the original Brownstone Institute Article and Author.