New Scientist Group Calling For Pandemic Answers Is Tied to Rightwing Dark Money
This original report was written in partnership with the Important Context newsletter.
A new medical group behind an 80-page “blueprint” for a potential congressional commission to investigate the harms of the U.S. government's COVID-19 response has ties to the political right and dark money.
The Norfolk Group purports to be eight independent scientists from different political backgrounds who are not working “on behalf of any institution, public or private” but are rather seeking answers to explain how the U.S. has fared so poorly throughout the pandemic.
“Certainly, deaths are unavoidable during a pandemic,” the group declares. “However, too many U.S. policy makers concentrated efforts on ineffective or actively harmful and divisive measures such as school closures that generated enormous societal damage without significantly lowering COVID-19 mortality, while failing to protect high-risk Americans. As a result, Americans were hard hit both by the disease and by collateral damage generated by misguided pandemic strategies and decisions that ignored years of pandemic preparation guidance crafted by numerous public health agencies, nationally and internationally.”
Benign as the Norfolk Group may appear at first blush—an ABC News affiliate called it “a small group of renowned infectious disease experts”—the reality is murkier. The group represents the latest volley in an ongoing war on public health measures waged by the business-aligned right wing. With Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, it may well prove highly influential.
Dark Money Origins
On the third page of the Norfolk Group white paper is an acknowledgment that the authors came together through a meeting organized by the Brownstone Institute, a shadowy COVID misinformation nonprofit. Important Context and the OptOut Media Foundation previously reported that Brownstone received most of its funding from just nine anonymous large donations in 2021.
“Seven of us started the work at an in-person meeting in Norfolk, Connecticut, organized by the Brownstone Institute in May of 2022,” the document reads. “We wrote and edited the bulk of this document during the subsequent six months. In honor of the place where we met, we call ourselves the Norfolk Group.”
Since it was first established in May 2021, Brownstone has promoted a number of extreme positions including advocacy for child labor and an end to public education. Its main purpose, however, has always been opposing public health mandates.
Brownstone was founded by anarcho-capitalist Jeffrey Tucker, who has ties to neo-Confederate groups and is a longtime veteran of billionaire industrialist Charles Koch’s political influence network, as the “spiritual child” of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD).
The GBD was an influential open letter that arose out of an October 2020 conference hosted by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank on the edges of Koch’s network where Tucker worked—he was instrumental in organizing the effort. The document, which was rejected by the mainstream scientific community, called on governments and scientists to eschew broad public health measures in favor of embracing mass infection as a quick path to herd immunity.
Brownstone has become a hub of COVID-related misinformation, including anti-vaccine narratives, downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic. As we previously reported, the institute has even tacitly encouraged violence against public health officials. Brownstone gave a fellowship to former Trump Health and Human Services science adviser Paul Alexander, who had previously called for hanging public health officials who tried to limit the spread of COVID. Tucker published an article on the group’s website with a guillotine image, suggesting “consequences” for such officials.
The scientists involved in the Norfolk Group have all been vocal opponents of public health measures—the group is a combination of GBD alums and signatories and organizers of the error-ridden Urgency of Normal toolkit, which aimed at getting children back into schools without COVID mitigation measures in place. Some have connections to the political right beyond Brownstone and are favorites of conservative institutions.
Norfolk Group members and GBD co-authors Drs. Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, for example, are darlings in the world of rightwing dark money. They have been interviewed, promoted, imbued with various honors, and booked for speaking gigs by various business-aligned rightwing groups and institutions.
Bhattacharya, the more prolific of the two scientists, is a senior fellow at the conservative public policy think tank, the Hoover Institution, which is housed at Stanford University, where he is a professor of health policy and economics. Hoover has received funding from Koch and other wealthy conservatives including the Walton family. In 2021, it got more than $500,000 from DonorsTrust, a preferred funding conduit of the Koch network and even more extremist funders.
At some point since mid-December, Bhattacharya’s profile page on Hoover’s website was altered. His role is now listed as “courtesy.” He was previously a research fellow at the institution.
Bhattacharya has been a featured speaker at conferences hosted by Hoover, Council For National Policy, and the American Institute for Economic Research. He helped the American Commitment Foundation—a dark money group co-founded by a former vice president of the Koch flagship political operation, Americans For Prosperity—with its Supreme Court amicus brief supporting a challenge to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine-or-test mandate for large businesses. Just this week, he was hosted by the University of Chicago chapter of the Federalist Society, the infamously well-funded conservative legal group dedicated to stacking the judiciary with extreme rightwing judges. The group got $3.7 million from DonorsTrust in 2021. The university is also famous as a hub of laissez-faire economic thought, which provided much of the intellectual framework behind the modern conservative movement.
The Stanford professor and Kulldorff are teaching fellows at Hillsdale College’s Academy of Science and Freedom. Hillsdale received $55,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation and another $17,000 from DonorsTrust in 2021. The scientists are being represented pro bono by Koch-funded litigation outfit New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) in a lawsuit against the Biden administration for allegedly coercing social media and technology companies to censor them. NCLA, which was founded by a former in-house counsel for Koch Industries, received $1 million from Stand Together Fellowships—formerly the Charles Koch Institute—in 2021, as well as $1 million from DonorsTrust and $15,000 from the Charles Koch Foundation.
Bhattacharya and Kulldorff have helped Republican lawmakers craft COVID policy at the federal and state level and testified as experts before Congress. They directly advised the Trump White House and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration and currently serve on DeSantis’ new Public Health Integrity Committee to investigate federal pandemic response measures.
Another Norfolk scientist, Dr. Tracy Beth Høeg, is similarly connected on the right. Høeg is a consultant epidemiologist for Florida’s Department of Health. Like Bhattacharya and Kulldorff, she is a member of DeSantis’ Public Health Integrity Committee. Along with fellow Norfolk Group and Urgency of Normal member Dr. Ram Duriseti, Høeg is being represented pro bono by NCLA in a lawsuit against California over a new misinformation law, which empowers the state’s medical board to punish doctors who promote COVID-related misinformation.
Meanwhile, Dr. Marty Makary, a surgical oncologist, Johns Hopkins professor, and Norfolk Group member, made the rounds on conservative media as a critic of the federal pandemic response and a COVID minimizer before being tapped by Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia as a COVID adviser last January.
Last month, in its “post-pandemic” roadmap, the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank, highlighted Bhattacharya, Kulldorff, Høeg, and Makary. Like Hoover, Heritage has received funding from many prominent conservatives over the years including Kochs and the Waltons. From 2014-20, it raked in over $1.2 million from the Charles Koch Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute.
Implicit, dubious, and unproven assumptions underlie the Norfolk Group’s document. The inquiries begin with the perspective that the GBD and Urgency of Normal were fundamentally correct; that government officials censored their ideas to the detriment of the national pandemic response; that mitigation efforts such as lockdowns, school closures, widespread testing, vaccine mandates, and masking—particularly masking of children—did more harm than good.
There is an entire section, for example, dedicated to “collateral lockdown harms,” beginning with a declaration that “the collateral damage associated with pandemic lockdown policies is enormous, cutting across multiple areas of physical and mental health, education, culture, religion, the economy, and the social fabric of society.” Among the harms listed is an increase in 2020 in deaths from heart disease and stroke, conditions that have been linked to COVID infection.
“How much of this increase was collateral lockdown damage?” the Norfolk Group asks. “Why was this problem not foreseen by the health agencies and politicians implementing lockdowns?”
Despite the fact that none of the scientists involved in the Norfolk Group are credentialed child development experts—Duriseti works in pediatric emergency medicine, has written about pediatric abdominal pain, and researched diagnosing pediatric appendicitis—the group’s paper dedicates much ink to exploring the various possible psychological harms to children from COVID mitigation measures.
Straying beyond their field is a problem several of the scientists involved in Norfolk Group have been criticized for in the past, including those behind Urgency of Normal and Bhattacharya. U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw called the latter’s testimony in a case over school mask mandates “troubling” and “problematic,” explaining that the Stanford professor had “offered opinions” involving “a discipline on which he admitted he was not qualified to speak.”
“His demeanor and tone while testifying suggest that he is advancing a personal agenda,” Crenshaw noted.
A substantial section of the Norfolk Group document deals with the alleged harms of school closures. The group suggests that the closures may have fueled a mental health crisis in young people. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that suicide rates for young people dropped off during the early months of the pandemic and have not otherwise deviated from pre-pandemic trends. Similarly, there was no spike in mental health emergency room visits for young people.
The Norfolk Group paper also takes issue with masking requirements for children, rehashing familiar, unproven narratives about speech and developmental delays as well as breathing difficulties while demanding randomized, controlled trials to demonstrate efficacy.
“Children face the least risk of COVID-19 and face the highest risk of harm from prolonged masking,” the paper states. “Why were the youngest and most vulnerable children in the Head Start programs, overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, some of the very last to be allowed to remove their masks in the Fall of 2022?”
In August, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children wear masks, explaining that concerns about developmental delays were overblown. Dr. Diane Paul, senior director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, had a similar assessment.
“At this point, we haven’t seen any large-scale, long-term studies related to mask use during the pandemic and speech/language delays or disorders in children,” Paul told Important Context/OptOut after reviewing the Norfolk Group section on masking children. “What we do know is that research shows that children look at a communication partner’s eyes and use voices (tone, inflection) to recognize words and understand emotions. Masks don’t interfere with these language learning processes.”
Paul noted, “It’s true that typically developing children look at faces during the language learning period,” but clarified, “They don’t stare at faces all the time.”
“We also know that in some cultures, adults regularly wear face coverings without a detrimental effect on their child’s speech and language development,” she said.
Paul did acknowledge that students with speech and language disorders may have “additional difficulties in educational or social settings communicating with masks,” but added that “teachers, speech-language pathologists, and many others who work with children found many ways to improve communication and compensate for such challenges when mask wearing was widespread—at a time when most of us were working under less-than-ideal circumstances.”
“And we recognize too that most children, with and without diagnosed speech and language disorders, spent most of their time during the pandemic with their families who did not wear masks at home,” Paul said.
Overstating the harms of COVID mitigation efforts while downplaying the harms of the virus is a feature of the Norfolk Group’s white paper, just as it was for the GBD and Urgency of Normal before it. While the document bemoans learning loss from school closures, for example, it fails to address caregiver death. According to an estimate by the Imperial College of London, nearly 280,000 American children have lost a primary or secondary caregiver to the virus. Similarly, the only mentions of long COVID in the white paper are in a brief section questioning whether or not the condition poses a serious enough concern to warrant current levels of research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
A November report from HHS found that at the time, as many as 23 million Americans were suffering long COVID and that “it can be extremely disruptive, dismantling their ability to work, their sense of self, and their entire existence.”
‘Officials Have Questions To Answer’
The 80-page Norfolk Group paper reads a bit like score-settling for the scientists involved. It takes particular aim at perceived enemies of the Great Barrington Declaration such as Dr. Deborah Birx, the former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator. Birx notably refused to participate in a roundtable discussion with Bhattacharya, Kulldorff, and others in the summer of 2020, calling them “a fringe group without grounding in epidemics, public health, or on-the-ground common sense experience.”
“Did policy experts know about pre and early pandemic statements in which experts cast doubt on the ability of quarantine and lockdown measures to stop community spread without excessive collateral damage?” the document asks. “Why did Dr. Birx purposely avoid meeting with public health experts who had specifically proposed such measures?”
Other targets include Drs. Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins, the former directors of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the NIH. Both had been dissenting voices in the Trump White House as the administration embraced the GBD. Bhattacharya and Kulldorff blame the two public health officials for the widespread rejection of their ideas, highlighting an email exchange between them in which Collins suggested that the declaration required a “quick and devastating published take-down.” The exchange occurred three days after a well-publicized White House meeting between the declaration co-authors and then-Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
The Norfolk Group paper frames Fauci and Collins as proponents of a “lockdown philosophy” and suggests they worked covertly to undermine dissent against COVID mitigation efforts.
“Why was so much influence on public health policy accorded to Drs. Collins and Fauci?” the Norfolk Group asks. “They control the largest source of infectious disease research funding in the world. How many infectious disease scientists, who should have been strong voices during the pandemic, kept quiet for fear of losing the research funding on which their livelihood depends?”
Fauci, the NIAID, and the NIH are defendants in Bhattacharya and Kulldorff’s NCLA lawsuit.
“The pandemic response is the worst assault on the working class since segregation and the Vietnam War, and both Trump and Biden officials have questions to answer,” Kulldorff claimed in a statement to Important Context/OptOut.
The Norfolk Group also takes aim at teachers' unions, which have fought for safer schools and classrooms throughout the pandemic. The group blames the unions for “lobbying for school closures” and asks questions like, “What role did teachers unions play in shifting the burden of risk to grandparents and day care workers (who may have been older) to care for children during school days?”
‘Hard To Take Anything From The Group Seriously’
Experts who spoke with Important Context/OptOut were critical of the Norfolk Group. Dr. Robert Morris, for example, an epidemiologist who has advised several federal agencies including the CDC and the NIH, pointed out that only one member of the group—Høeg—has a Ph.D. in epidemiology. Even then, he explained, her only previous work in the field was related to ophthalmological epidemiology. She practiced physical medicine before the pandemic.
“I'm not suggesting that any of them is not smart,” Morris said. “But you can be the best brain surgeon in the world—you would not do well on a heart transplant. There's differences between these fields.”
“And somehow, epidemiology looks really easy but again and again, these people prove how hard it is by doing it poorly,” he added. Indeed, Bhattacharya was launched into the spotlight by rightwing media early in the pandemic with a deeply flawed seroprevalence study that significantly underestimated the severity of the virus. In May 2020, Buzzfeed revealed that the researchers had accepted money from the founder of JetBlue Airways, David Neeleman, a vocal opponent of business closures, without disclosing it.
Morris noted that his own Ph.D. is in environmental engineering; that he has a master’s in biostatistics and epidemiology and an MD but clarified, “I did epidemiologic research for 15 years and wrote about 50 papers, so I feel I can call myself an epidemiologist. And I taught epidemiology for 15 years.”
Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist and associate professor of artificial intelligence in public health at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, told Important Context/OptOut, “It’s hard to take anything from the group seriously given the history of the Brownstone Institute and the ‘experts’ within it, who have a long history of misrepresenting evidence and platforming misinformation.”
Gurdasani has long been a vocal critic of the Great Barrington Declaration, calling it “dangerous pseudoscience.” She is a co-founder of a response declaration called the John Snow Memorandum.
Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, told Important Context/OptOut that the Norfolk Group document left her with “two initial impressions.”
“First, the fact that they refer to COVID-19 as in the past reflects a lack of understanding about the epidemiology of the disease,” Murray said. “Second, there seems to be a general lack of knowledge that after-action evaluation reports are standard and expected in public health. Once health departments are actually at a place where they are no longer bouncing from crisis moment to crisis moment with COVID-19, after-action reports will of course happen.”
‘No Easy Choices’
Dr. Julia Raifman, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Public Health who leads the COVID-19 U.S. State Policy Database, cautioned against taking the wrong lessons from the pandemic.
“The mitigation measures we took were costly, but the alternative was even more costly,” she said. “There were no easy choices, but I appreciate the leaders who chose temporary setbacks to education and the economy over even greater permanent loss of life.”
Raifman explained that “closures helped avoid many more people dying while we learned about how to mitigate spread of the virus, while health care workers learned how to provide better care for people infected, and while scientists developed a vaccine.”
Raifman did point out, however, that “economic supports” were “key to any such closures,” noting that the assistance provided by Congress and two presidential administrations “during this period actually led to a record decline in poverty.”
While the effort may struggle to find mainstream scientific legitimacy, the Norfolk Group has a clearer goal: “to present a blueprint containing key public health questions for a COVID-19 commission.” With Republicans in control of Congress, it is likely the group will succeed in this measure, especially now that Fox News has picked up on it.
For months, Republicans in the House and Senate have been promising to investigate various aspects of the pandemic, including COVID’s origins and the actions of public health officials—namely Fauci—in responding to the crisis.
Over the summer, in the lead-up to the midterms, then-House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted that "Dr. Fauci lost the trust of the American people when his guidance unnecessarily kept schools closed and businesses shut while obscuring questions about his knowledge on the origins of COVID.”
“He owes the American people answers,” McCarthy wrote. “A @HouseGOP majority will hold him accountable."
Last month, following a tumultuous speakership fight, the new GOP House majority took steps to follow through on McCathy’s promise, establishing a select subcommittee with broad powers to investigate the government’s pandemic response. Rolling Stone reported that conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has compared masking to the Holocaust, had been appointed to sit on the subcommittee, which is part of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee.
Already there are indications that the new body will promote the same narratives embraced by the dark money groups fighting against public health measures.
After a so-called Twitter Files thread by writer and COVID contrarian David Zweig, whom Important Context previously covered, Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) tweeted in December that “Big Tech shouldn't be in the business of hiding facts.”
Jeffrey Tucker and Kulldorff’s Norfolk Group colleagues did not respond to our inquiries.
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