Covid scientist Sunetra Gupta talks to us about campaign to smear her.

The appalling treatment of an Oxford professor exemplifies the politicisation of Covid-19 research.

Sunetra Gupta has talked to the Committee for Academic Freedom about her ordeal. Gupta is professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford. She has received the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin award and the Scientific Medal of the Zoological Society of London. Professor Gupta specialises in the transmission of infectious respiratory diseases, and her work has led to the development of a new flu vaccine.

On 4th October 2020, Gupta, together with Martin Kulldorff of Harvard and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford, published the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), arguing for an alternative approach to the Covid pandemic. Instead of national lockdowns, the declaration advocated a strategy of targeted measures focussed on protecting the most vulnerable. Gupta’s reasoning was that while the costs of lockdown were already evident, its effectiveness in reducing deaths from the virus was unknown. There has been extensive academic debate on the effectiveness of lockdowns: many reputable researchers argue that they had a minimal effect on infections and deaths. See, for instance, Hunter, Bjørnskov, Wood, and Colhoun.

Following the publication of the Great Barrington Declaration, Gupta was the victim of an organised campaign of abuse and defamation. The accusations levelled at Gupta fall into two main categories:

First, false and damaging claims were made about her professional credentials. She was described as “charlatan” by Christina Pagel, a mathematician at UCL and member of SAGE, and as a “quack” by Simon Proud, an earth scientist at the University of Oxford. Gupta has received legal advice that both claims constitute libel. 

Second, it was widely insinuated that Gupta had been paid by the American Institute for Economic Affairs (AIER), a libertarian think tank, to publish her views. This is also false. AIER offered Gupta, Kulldorff and Bhattacharya a conference venue which culminated in the publication of the GBD.  It is not unusual in the academic world to be hosted by organisations whose political affiliations do not align with yours; indeed, the University of Oxford contains a number of Institutes (eg. The Blavatnik School) whose beneficiaries may not entirely espouse the values of the donor. The AEIR did not pay Gupta, Kulldorff and Bhattacharya to promote its views. Other academics in receipt of funds from far more obviously right-wing institutions have not been labelled a far-right extremist and libertarian, as Gupta has simply by virtue of the GBD being composed at the AEIR and receiving their kind assistance in making it available on the internet for those who wished to endorse it. Gupta is, in fact, is a strong supporter of the welfare state, and would be happy to be described as left-wing in her political inclinations.

Other false claims about Gupta were circulated by leading scientists. Jeremy Farrar, then director of the Welcome Trust, reported Gupta as claiming in March 2020 that half the UK had already been infected. In fact, Gupta had merely published a paper pointing out that, with the information available at the time, this was a possibility. This finding was accepted by Professor Neil Ferguson, author of the influential Imperial model, and Sir Patrick Vallance, then Chief Scientific Advisor to the government. Professor Gupta has written to many of her detractors, noting that while it is perfectly acceptable for them to criticise her views, the statements they have made about her are libellous. She has received no response.

Gupta believes that she has been professionally sidelined as a result of the smear campaign against her. Her offer to work, for free, at the newly created Pandemic Sciences Institute at Oxford was refused, with no explanation given. She has been excluded from the Covid Inquiry, which from its questioning of Carl Heneghan has an evident interest in the Great Barrington Declaration. Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of SAGE who like Gupta believes that lockdowns were a “policy failure”, made efforts to distance himself from Gupta when giving evidence to the Inquiry. Colleagues more generally have tried to distance themselves from her.

Professor Gupta’s case does not stand alone. It brings into focus a general tendency in Covid research. Pressure on scientists to conform to the mainstream narrative, from within and outside academia, is intense. “Sceptic” is used as a derogatory term. Gupta and the other authors of the GBD were described as “fringe epidemiologists”, conflating advocacy of a minority view with lack of professional credentials. The libels made against Gupta also exemplify a tendency to scapegoat. Gupta has been widely blamed for the government’s decision not to lockdown earlier in Autumn 2020. While it is true that on 20th September Gupta gave a 15 minute presentation to the cabinet arguing against lockdown, at the same time iSAGE also issued a report arguing that lockdown could be avoided. Many of those who now accuse Gupta themselves opposed lockdown at the time. 

Professor Gupta is an eminent academic. Her reputation and position provide some protection against the libellous attacks she has endured. The same is not true for younger, less celebrated researchers, on whom such attacks have a significantly greater chilling effect. 

The growth of pressure to conform affects institutions as well as individuals. The Royal Society has historically been extremely open to debating controversial hypotheses, including, for instance, the later disproved theory of Edward Hooper that HIV evolved from a polio vaccine. Highly unusually, no debate on lockdowns was ever held by the Royal Society. The ongoing Covid Inquiry appears to have assumed in advance that lockdowns were effective, with one KC stating in session that this is “self-evident” and “obvious”. A claim that is disputed amongst epidemiologists should not be assumed.

The Covid-19 pandemic was a fraught and tragic period. It is vital that we know the truth about the virus, and how best to respond to it. For this, academic freedom is essential.