The pandemic is on its way out, but how many Americans think the U.S. approach succeeded? More than 600,000 Americans died from Covid, and lockdowns have left extensive collateral damage. Trust in science has eroded, and the damage won’t be limited to epidemiology, virology and public health. Scientists in other fields will unfortunately also have to deal with the fallout, including oncologists, physicists, computer scientists, environmental engineers and even economists.
The first step to restoring the public’s trust in scientific experts is an honest and comprehensive evaluation of the nation’s pandemic response. Sens. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) and Susan Collins (R., Maine) have introduced a bill that would establish a Covid commission to examine the origins of the virus, the early response to the epidemic, and equity issues in the disease’s impact. Private foundations are also in the process of planning such a commission.
For a commission to be credible, it needs to be broad in both scope and membership. Members can’t have conflicts of interest. If the public perceives the commission is a whitewash, distrust in the scientific community will erode further. A commission must consider four major areas of the U.S. pandemic strategy:
• Public-health measures, including the closing of schools, businesses, sports, religious services and cultural events; other forms of physical distancing; protection of nursing homes; masks; testing; contact tracing; case counts; cause-of-death audits; decreased medical care; Cares Act payments to hospitals, and much more.
• The treatment of Covid patients, including prophylactics, therapeutics, ventilators, hospital care and crowding; ethnic and income disparities; an evaluation of federal agencies responsible for funding research on treatments.
• Vaccines, including their development and approval; vaccine safety monitoring; patient prioritization; vaccine passports; and the causes of increasing vaccine hesitancy.
• The discourse and censorship of scientific debate, including the journal publication process, tech-company censorship, political interference, and slander and smearing within the scientific community.
As part of its mandate, the Covid Response Commission must evaluate both Covid outcomes and the collateral public-health damage, including delayed cancer screening, worse cardiovascular disease outcomes, and deteriorating mental health, to name a few. Positive outcomes are also worth including.
The Covid Response Commission shouldn’t concern itself with the origin of the virus, which is best left to other investigative bodies and would distract from evaluating the response. The origins of the virus aren’t relevant to how well the U.S. handled the pandemic at home.
The commission shouldn’t be dominated by virologists, immunologists and epidemiologists. Membership should consist of experts who have a broader view of public health and policy, including those with expertise in oncology, cardiovascular disease, geriatric and pediatric medicine, psychology, psychiatry, education and much else. Patients should be represented, as should members of the public who were harmed by lockdowns, including artists, small-business owners, students and clergy.
The commission should enforce strict rules to ensure that members have no conflicts of interest. For instance, those who helped craft pandemic policies should be prohibited from evaluating themselves.
Here are our suggested exclusion criteria, applied to anyone involved in the planning or formal commission: No one may participate who has a salary or honoraria, research funding or stockholdings from any pharmaceutical company, vaccine manufacturer or company making Covid products such as ventilators, tests, masks or barriers. No federal or state public health officials, scientists paid to advise the White House or a governor on Covid policy, or anyone who has been a paid expert witness in court cases related to Covid should be allowed to participate.
Also excluded: those who have worked with tech companies or others on censoring; scientists who publicly name-called other scientists; and those who have called for censoring or deplatforming of others. Facebook, for instance, has outsourced some of its decisions to HealthfFeedback.org, which employs a group of pro-lockdown scientists to evaluate the claims of other scientists. In one instance, the group prompted Facebook to censor Martin Makary’s February Wall Street Journal op-ed, which correctly predicted the development of population immunity in the U.S.
Unpaid advice or expressed views about the pandemic response shouldn’t disqualify anyone from serving on the commission. In fact, the committee must include members who have expressed diverse views, including those who advocated against lockdowns and who championed different treatments and vaccine recommendations. All deliberations of a Covid Response Commission should be public.
For the health of science and the country, we need an honest and thorough evaluation of Covid policies, not one that can be dismissed as a whitewash like the World Health Organization’s efforts. The vaccines are a success story, but science has lost much luster during the pandemic. Science will fail in its important mission without the trust of every part of society.
Reprinted with the authors’ permission from the WSJ