Nafeez Ahmed asks why the global health body is seeking input from scientists linked to the discredited theory of herd immunity by natural infection

A top World Health Organization (WHO) advisor and grant recipient researching COVID-19 transmission and respiratory viruses is on the payroll of a successor organisation to the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) with ties to some of the most vociferous pandemic disinformation networks. The GBD is a discredited pseudoscientific document sponsored by a Koch-backed climate science denial network that advocates ‘herd immunity’ by natural infection, rejected by over 7,000 public health experts.

The advisor, who plays a key role in helping set the agenda for the WHO’s funding of external scientific research on COVID-19 while also being a beneficiary of WHO funding is Dr Tom Jefferson, a British epidemiologist who works with the Cochrane Collaboration. He is currently receiving WHO funding to provide an updated Cochrane review of physical interventions to interrupt the spread of respiratory viruses, as well as to participate in a systematic review of COVID-19 transmission by the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University run by Professor Carl Heneghan. 

He is also a member of the WHO Infection Prevention and Control Research and Development Expert Group for COVID-19 (IPCRDEG-C19), which advises the WHO on how it should commission external research. 


The New GBD

Byline Times previously revealed that while in receipt of WHO funding, lead investigator Heneghan simultaneously sits on the scientific advisory board of Collateral Global Ltd., a successor organisation to the GBD founded and directed by its chief authors, Professor Sunetra Gupta and her partner Alexander Caccia.

Collateral Global’s scientific advisors include Gupta’s fellow GBD co-founders, Harvard University’s Professor Martin Kulldorf, and Stanford University’s Professor Jay Bhattacharya. 

In a new statement of competing interests published on 24 April, Heneghan’s co-author Tom Jefferson confirmed that he is being directly paid by Collateral Global Ltd to conduct ‘lockdown sceptic’ COVID-19 research. The statement published at the RIAT Support Center notes that Jefferson is “funded to co-author rapid reviews on the impact of Covid restrictions by Collateral Global Organisation.” 

This means that while being on the payroll of a successor organisation to the GBD, Jefferson simultaneously plays a key role advising the WHO on how it should commission research on COVID-19. 


The Misinformation Network

Since Byline Times’ previous story on Collateral Global’s connection to the WHO funding of systematic reviews on COVID-19 transmission, Collateral Global’s website was revamped with new scientific advisory board members and a new organisational structure, revealing the organisation’s connections to a network of pandemic misinformation platforms

GBD co-founder Jay Bhattacharya is now ‘Editor in Chief’ at Collateral Global, with Alex Caccia now formally anointed as the organisation’s CEO. 

While the GBD has been sponsored by a right-wing libertarian organisation, the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), with a long track record of defending the interests of fossil fuel and tobacco lobbies, it is not clear where Collateral Global’s funding comes from.

Collateral Global’s new advisors include Professor David Livermore, Professor Ellen Townsend, and Professor Jennie Bristow all three of whom have been members of the ‘Health Recovery & Advisory Team’ (HART). GBD signatory Karol Sikora has also now joined HART in May.

HART’s quantitative data analyst Joel Smalley – who is also a team member at South Africa-based COVID-19 disinformation platform PANDA  – has made anti-vaxxer claims in a HART report published in March. The report claims that the peak of deaths between December 2020 and February 2021 “coincided with the mass roll-out of novel mRNA/DNA vaccines, on an extremely vulnerable population… Broken down by the separate vaccination cohort… the correlation between vaccination and COVID-19 deaths is even more apparent.” Smalley goes on to claim that the correlation is apparent “in many countries around the world”, and adds:

“It would be extremely unscientific and even negligent not to investigate whether the rise in deaths during this period is linked in some way to the vaccine roll-out… We have entered a dangerous time where science is being censored using harmful labels like ‘anti-vaxxer’. This is incredibly worrying.”

While Livermore remains a HART member, since Byline Times’ reporting on HART’s involvement in COVID-19 misinformation, Bristow and Townsend are no longer listed on its website. Both Livermore and Townsend are also GBD signatories.

Townsend was also previously identified as a ‘public health spokesperson’ for the disinformation website PCRclaims.co.uk which falsely claimed that the pandemic is an artefact of PCR tests generating false positives. 

Another HART member, retired paediatrician Dr Ros Jones, is a member of the leadership team at the parents’ lobby group UsforThem. Several of her fellow coordinators at UsforThem have appeared on platforms promoting COVID-19 misinformation such as the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH) which is a vigorous promoter of anti-vaccine misinformation. 


A Confession

The revamped Collateral Global website has published an interview with its CEO, Alex Caccia, by its chief copy editor and content writer AJ Kay, including his declaration of love for GBD co-founder Gupta: “Chance played a significant part nearly two years ago when I met Sunetra Gupta… Ever since the pandemic lumbered onto the world stage in 2020, I have tried in whatever way I can to support Sunetra and act as a foil – and learn.” His interviewer, AJ Kay, has recently openly expressed anti-vaccine sentiments on Twitter. 

The interview corroborates Byline Times’ previous reporting revealing that Caccia, a UK Ministry of Defence contractor, had played a key role in drafting the GBD document, conceptualising its launch strategy and assisting Gupta by securing PR support for her claims about herd immunity.

The role of Collateral Global contractor Tom Jefferson in both advising the WHO on its COVID-19 research and benefiting from WHO funding to conduct some of that research, raises urgent questions about why the global health body is seeking scientific input from scientists linked to the Great Barrington Declaration. John Conly, chair of the WHO’s IPCRDEG-C19 group, is also a co-author with Jefferson and Heneghan for their WHO-funded reviews.

The WHO was contacted for comment. Although the WHO assured Byline Times that it would respond “in due course” to previous reporting on its advisors’ links to the GBD, it has failed to do so. Collateral Global and Tom Jefferson did not respond to requests for comment.

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