Do lockdowns work? Do masks? What have we learned about what government actions help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and which don’t?
As public health officials and the media sound the alarm about the omicron variant of COVID-19, the answers to those questions are crucial.
Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and author of the new book “Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives,” joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to answer all those questions and more, drawing on data from various states and countries. Berenson also unpacks the damage caused by some measures taken against COVID-19.
We also cover these stories:
- The Biden administration is preparing to reinstate the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy for migrants seeking asylum.
- The administration announces new measures to control COVID-19 on the heels of the first confirmed U.S. infection involving the omicron variant.
- A Massachusetts teacher sues her former principal and superintendent after being fired for posting videos on TikTok voicing opposition to critical race theory and gender identity ideology.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: Our guest today is Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and author of the new book “Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives,” available now wherever books are sold. Alex, welcome to the show.
Alex Berenson: Thank you. I have to say, people keep calling it “Pandemia,” which, actually, it probably is correct sort of thematically because it’s a pandemic. I always call it “Pandemia” with sort of a long “e” because I think it sounds a little bit more like the hysteria. It emphasizes the absurdity of what’s happened the last year and a half. But I can’t convince people. Everyone calls it “Pandemia.” So maybe I’ll have to change the way I pronounce it.
Blair: There you go. All right. Well, for the future, it’ll be “Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over.”
So, let’s actually start with maybe a hysteria in the making. Let’s start with the news around the omicron variant, which, of course, we’ve just learned this comes out of South Africa. Based on your time reporting on COVID-19 and the COVID pandemic, is the media and lawmaker response to omicron reasonable? How concerned should Americans be about this new variant?
Berenson: No, it’s completely unreasonable and it’s completely in keeping with what we’ve seen the last 18 months. Now, look, there’s a chance this is a black swan. OK? There’s a chance that this is really transmissible and it’s really more dangerous than earlier strains or earlier variants of the coronavirus. But there’s no evidence of that right now.
In fact, the South Africans who’ve been treating people say it appears to be as mild or milder than the delta variant or the earlier strains. And the fact is that none of the earlier strains have really been much more dangerous, including delta. There’s not a lot of evidence that their mortality was higher with delta. It’s more contagious. So the question is, is it more contagious? And the truth is, we don’t even know that either right now.
So the proper response to this would’ve been: “There’s a new variant out there. We’re aware of it. We’re monitoring it. We do think it might be more contagious and it certainly has a lot of mutations. We will let you know when we know more.”
And why didn’t they say that? Why didn’t the media and the public health authorities say that? Why did you have this, essentially, coordinated effort to panic the world last week?
I think it’s perfectly obvious why, at least in the United States it’s obvious why. The campaign to get people to take boosters is not really going anywhere—booster vaccines, the third dose. The campaign to get people to vaccinate their children is not really going anywhere. The vaccine mandates are on the ropes. Several different federal courts have now ruled against all three of the mandates.
And so this is an effort both to sort of scare people into getting that third dose or getting the first dose if they haven’t been vaccinated yet and to make an excuse for the fact that we know the vaccines are failing, that over time their effectiveness against infection and transmission goes down quite possibly to zero. And so this is an excuse.
“Go get your booster, go get your vaccine if you haven’t gotten it, go get your kids vaccinated. And if you don’t do that, you’re to blame. Omicron is the problem. It’s not the vaccine.” I mean, I’m just incredibly skeptical and cynical of what we saw last week. And I think if you read “Pandemia,” you will see why.
Blair: It does seem like we’re seeing a similar response to early news to omicron that we are seeing with delta. And it sounds like that’s what you’re saying as well, is that correct?
Berenson: Yes. I mean, if anything, again, I think we have less evidence to be afraid of omicron than we did of delta at a similar point. Because they caught this so early, they really know very, very little about it.
Now, what they’ll say is there are all these mutations and so that’s frightening. But the fact is immunology and virology are incredibly complicated and you don’t really know how the mutations—
You can essentially try to model how the mutations will make the virus look. And then you can guess about how the new shape of the virus will attach to receptors or will attach to antibodies that either the vaccine or natural immunity has helped your body create. But you don’t really know until you see the epidemiology, until you see the statistics.
And that lesson we should have learned in the last 18 months. And for whatever reason, the public health authorities are ignoring it.
Blair: Now, one of the things that a lot of people have been concerned about is the response from public health authorities and government officials to things that we are experiencing in this pandemic or we were experiencing during this pandemic.
Let’s pivot to your book, “Pandemia,” and the research that you did about COVID-19. Let’s start out with the sort of obvious first step of the response to COVID, lockdowns. Now, according to your research, did lockdowns actually end up working? Did they do anything?
Berenson: Well, they did a lot. They messed up our society. They caused people to gain weight. They appear to have increased depression significantly among young people. Especially, they appear to have helped drive the worst year for drug overdoses in American history and this year maybe worse.
They did a lot. Did they do anything to stop the spread of the coronavirus? Well, we’re now almost two years into the coronavirus, the virus is still going around and around this country and around the world. So I’d say the answer to that question is provably no at this point.
Blair: OK. So the lockdowns maybe didn’t do much positive. Obviously, what you’re saying is that they did a lot of negative. Let’s shift to the other anti-COVID measure, which is masking. Let’s ask the same question, do masks work?
Berenson: Lockdowns, there’s an argument about. You can argue, you can look, and you can say, “Well, if you go early enough—look at New Zealand. New Zealand did really well. They closed the country. They locked down. They didn’t have a lot of COVID.” OK. Masks there’s no argument about. Masks are useless.
This was not even an argument people had before March 2020. When you try to demonstrate that standard cloth or surgical masks reduce infection, you can’t do it. And they tried last year with a big study in Denmark. It showed no efficacy of masks. That just confirmed previous studies of masks and the flu.
So they have this theory of source control that masks reduce transmission, which is effectively next to impossible to demonstrate epidemiologically.
And there’s good reason to think sort of on the biological, on the viral level, these particles are just too small for masks to do any good. And people will say, “Oh, there’s this big study out of Bangladesh and it showed that masks work.” Well, I will tell you what that study actually showed was an 8% or 9% reduction in infections with sort of a very strong effort to get people to use masks.
By the way, once they stopped—people stopped using the masks in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi stopped using masks. So that’s how much the Bangladeshis cared about the effectiveness of masks.
Again, there’s two great memes that were going around last year on Twitter, before I was banned from Twitter and I could see these things. But one was the chain-link fence with the mosquito. So this idea that the virus is the mosquito and the mask is the chain-link fence, the virus is just too small for masks to do any good. And that’s basically correct.
Masking, these particles, I think we can’t imagine how small they are as human beings, because scale is so impossible for a person to think of. And so you see this mask and it looks like the weave is tight and it looks like nothing can get in or out, but that’s just not true. The holes, as tiny as they are, the virus is smaller.
And the other meme that went around, there were graphs that went around where people, they’d put up in various states when a mass restriction had been put in or when it had been tightened or when it had been loosened or when it had been made indoors or when it had been made outdoors, and they graphed that against charts of COVID cases.
And what you would see was absolutely no relationship, that on a societal basis, you couldn’t guess which states you were looking at based on mask restrictions or not. If you looked at Florida versus California, you couldn’t guess when things had been imposed or restricted.
So, on the most basic scientific level, there’s very good evidence for why masks don’t work. And then, on the societal level, you see, we’ve all been wearing masks for the last year and a half. Certainly, in 2020, we were all wearing masks, and just as with lockdowns, it made absolutely no difference to the course of the epidemic.
Blair: One of the things you mentioned in “Pandemia” is that COVID deaths have been overcounted. For example, a person who dies in a car crash and had COVID would be counted as a COVID death or something similar to that where COVID wasn’t the cause of death, but it was being counted as a death related to COVID. Is that what you meant by that? Or what do you mean when you say that COVID deaths have been overcounted?
Berenson: So, to be perfectly clear, COVID deaths probably have been overcounted. That is not to say that a lot of people have not died from COVID. So you see these numbers sometimes floating around, “Oh, only 6% of the people who reportedly died from COVID died from COVID,” or the Italians cut it to 3%, that’s wrong.
COVID killed a lot of people last year, and this year. It’s killed a lot of people. You can see it in the excess death numbers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Mortality did go up.
There was a small group of people who clearly didn’t die from COVID. The classic example is, yeah, the person who had COVID and got in a car accident, or the person who had COVID and died of a drug overdose. A lot of those deaths were counted as COVID.
The much bigger problem with the counting of COVID deaths—and I talked about this in my “Unreported Truths” booklet, the first one, and I talk about this in “Pandemia” at some length—is that most of the people who die from COVID are quite sick.
They’re either extremely elderly and frail or they’re morbidly obese, or they have some other severe illness like uncontrolled diabetes, severe kidney disease. They’re very ill.
And this is the thing, this is the original lie around COVID, is that we’re all at serious risk from it. That’s just not true.
… By the way, once in a while, and the media loves these cases—I hate to say “loves,” but “loves” is the right word—they love to find some apparently healthy person under 60 or under 50 who died from COVID.
The Guardian just had another story about one of these people, and he died in July. It’s December. That’s how hard they have to look to find people who are young and apparently healthy who died from COVID.
So the problem isn’t that the death counts are monstrously overstated. I think they’re somewhat overstated. The problem is that this illness on the whole is not serious enough to wreck society, to destroy the hospital system, or to merit the monstrous changes that we’ve made to our society in the last two years in terms of curtailing people’s freedoms, in terms of taking away school from kids for a year, in terms of now mandating that vaccine. Even if the Pfizer vaccine has now been approved in the U.S., actually approved, I’d still classify these vaccines as quasi-experimental.
We have monstrously overreacted and the media has encouraged that rather than discouraged it. And the core way they’ve done that is to scare people who are very low risk from this, instead of saying, “Look, this is a problem and certainly, we don’t want people in nursing homes to die … we don’t want excess death of any kind, but we’re going to try to protect the people who are at risk from this to the extent we can. We’re going to try to make sure that the surges don’t overcome our medical system, which we’ve demonstrated we can do. And the rest of us are going to get on with our lives and wait for properly tested vaccines and therapeutics to be available.”
And why that didn’t happen, it’s a mystery. I can raise it in “Pandemia,” but I can’t solve it yet. I think it’s going to take years and it’s going to take government archives to be opened and we’re going to have to see what drove this panic in a way that we haven’t been able to yet.
Blair: There has been a running theme throughout this pandemic of different states taking different approaches to COVID response. So, for example, we’ve seen red states and blue states take very, very different approaches to COVID with California and New York doing one thing and then Florida with Gov. Ron DeSantis doing another thing. What can we parse from the data that we’ve gotten from different states?
Berenson: I mean, I would say what we parse is that government actions have had very little impact. And if you look, now there’s an argument that for a long time the worst states in terms of deaths were in the Northeast, blue states, nanny states. They got hit very hard, very early. They made decisions like sending people who were sick back into nursing homes and caused excess death. That way, Florida had relatively low death rates, especially relative to the age of its population.
Now, 18 months in, or almost two years in, some Southern states are now at the top of what they call in the U.K. the league tables. And so people on the left are going to say, “Well, that proves that the red states did it wrong.”
The problem with that is, A, again, Florida has a very elderly population, so they’re going to naturally have extra deaths. And then other Southern states like Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, they have, unfortunately, a lot of morbid obesity. Those are unhealthy states and so they are more likely to have a lot of death from COVID.
So, I mean, this is why it gets really hard to try to assign blame or credit for any response, because the epidemiology gets very complicated very quickly.
So what I would say is that, aside from a couple of states, Vermont, which is quite rural and relatively healthy, there’s very few real outliers. Everyone is clustered around now maybe 2.5 deaths per 1,000 people over a two-year period. Some states are a little higher, some states are a little lower.
And, again, you look at Europe, the main countries in Western Europe, they for the most part are at a similar level. Germany has been the outlier and has been better for most of the pandemic. But guess what? Germany is now suddenly seeing a huge acceleration in both cases and deaths. It looks like you get an aversion to the mean here, no matter what you do.
… This is a lot of talk, but I summed this up in three words on Twitter. And one of the reasons people hated me or also liked me on Twitter is, I talk about in “Pandemia,” I had this talent for saying things sometimes in a sarcastic way, sometimes in a cynical way, but they really got to the heart of things, or at least I hoped they did.
And what I would say was “virus gonna virus,” meaning there’s just not much anybody can do. It’s an airborne respiratory virus. It’s just like the flu in that way. Virus gonna virus, and good luck trying to stop it.
Blair: I think that’s an interesting point that you mentioned that government response didn’t do anything, but we’re going to talk about health officials as well. So, one of the criticisms that comes up frequently during the pandemic was that health officials like Dr. [Anthony] Fauci or [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] Director Rochelle Walensky have come under fire for seemingly flip-flopping on guidance surrounding COVID. How would you rate the performance of public health officials like those two during this pandemic?
Berenson: It’s been terrible. It’s been almost shockingly terrible. At the very beginning, they were actually calmer, believe it or not. There was seemingly less panic at a time when we actually had more uncertainty and arguably more reason to panic.
And you had Fauci. He’s on the record in January 2020 saying, “Asymptomatic transmission doesn’t seem to be a driver in general of epidemics.” You have him in late February, early March saying masks are going to be useless.
You have people like Michael Osterholm, who’s an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota, writing op-eds for The Washington Post, saying, “Hey, look, we shouldn’t crash our economy here. Lockdowns are letting a genie out of a bottle that we really can’t control.”
And within a matter of weeks in March 2020, all these people had hit the panic button and they never come back. And again, the question is why. …
If you look at the polling data from back in early in the epidemic, there’s this notion now that somehow Republicans have been not listening at all. And that’s not true, honestly.
There were only a few people, like me, to be honest, who in April 2020 [were] saying, “This is not a good idea, to lock down. We really should end this quickly.” Most Americans, most people worldwide, and most Americans of either political party were strongly in favor of lockdowns through March, April, and May of 2020.
I’ll tell you when the Republicans really broke off. They really broke off at the [George] Floyd protests because they saw public health authorities who’d been telling people, “You have to stay inside. It’s dangerous. You can’t protest these lockdowns,” telling people by the hundreds of thousands, “It’s OK to be outside. It’s OK to be protesting. It’s even OK to be rioting, if the cause is just.” And I think that that caused a split that has not healed and has gotten worse and worse, and the divide has gotten more and more partisan. …
And also … there were a number of people who realized fairly early on, and this is what I’ll give myself the most credit for, realized that school closures were a massive mistake and that they were being driven by partisan politics.
So by the end of the summer of 2020, there was a big partisan divide that has only gotten worse. And I think the public health authorities … have no credibility left for a large part of the population.
Blair: One of the things that you mentioned earlier on in the interview was that Twitter had banned you, and the reason that they banned you is that you were apparently “spreading COVID misinformation.” I almost feel like that term, “COVID misinformation,” has been weaponized to shut down dissenting opinions. Do you feel that that’s an accurate assessment?
Berenson: Absolutely. I mean, I used to tweet, when I was allowed to tweet, I would say, “Information you do not like is not misinformation.”
So, let’s walk through. There’s lies. If I say, “Eighteen million people died from COVID in the United States,” that’s a lie.
Then there’s disinformation, which is, let’s say I post a video of somebody dropping dead in the street and I said, “This person died of COVID,” and I have no idea whether or not that person died of COVID. And maybe the video was taken during the epidemic in a place where the epidemic happened, but I don’t know and nobody else knows if the person died of COVID. That’s disinformation.
And nobody ever accused me of either of those things.
Then there’s misinformation. So misinformation is, I say, “Look at all the deaths on VAERS,” which is the federal side effect vaccine reporting database, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. And I say, “Look, there are more deaths on VAERS from COVID vaccines in the last six months than in the history of VAERS the previous 30 years, all of other vaccines combined.” And that’s correct. Now, maybe it’s nine months, but that is basically correct.
And somebody says, “Berenson is putting out misinformation because we don’t know if all those deaths were caused by the COVID vaccine, so you shouldn’t be scared of the vaccine. This is misinformation.”
Notice, they’re not saying that either my first statement is inaccurate, that there have been this many deaths, or that my second statement is inaccurate, that the number of deaths is more than the number of deaths combined.
What they’re saying is something that I didn’t say. I didn’t say, “I know that all these deaths were caused by the vaccine.” I said, “Look at this. It’s problematic. We need to investigate it.”
And you’re absolutely correct. To throw me off Twitter for making truthful and accurate statements is just, whether or not I am able to successfully sue Twitter and get back on, it is a violation of everything this country stands for. And it is wrong. The suppression of dissent, honest or not, is wrong, but the suppression of honest dissent is doubly wrong.
Blair: On a similar note to that, there’s a very famous quote from The Atlantic that you are considered “the pandemic’s wrongest man.” So, this is a sort of attack by the corporate media for your reporting on COVID. Now, as we mentioned at the top, you previously worked for The New York Times, which is considered to be a reputable institution. What do you think of how legacy media has handled reporting on COVID? And then on a similar topic, how do you think that they’ve handled reporting that goes against what the corporate media’s narrative is?
Berenson: Well, they simply refuse to acknowledge it. I mean, I’m so disappointed in the Times. I didn’t work for the Times for a month. I worked for The New York Times for 10 years. I left the Times on good terms. My editor wanted me to stay. I left because I was writing novels that were doing very well. And that’s a pretty good life. I only really got back into nonfiction writing and journalism because I got frustrated with what I was seeing at the Times and other places, years and years later.
But no, I mean, I’m so disappointed in the Times and in the legacy media in general. I’m disappointed in the way they’ve covered COVID, but I think I’m even more disappointed in their efforts to silence and censor people like me. When Twitter kicked me off, people at The New York Times and other legacy media outlets cheered. I think it’s insane that reporters would cheer censorship.
If people are not listening to you at The New York Times or to you at The Atlantic, if people are spending their own money to hear me on Substack, if there’s this now huge group of people who are subscribing to platforms other than the legacy media, that’s a sign that you’re failing.
The fact that RFK’s book sold a hundred thousand copies a week ago and that there are all these nonfiction books that are essentially conservative or independent narratives that are at the top of the bestseller list tells you that there is a desperation for information out there that the legacy media is not providing. And for them to say, “We want social media companies to censor,” is insane.
Blair: As we begin to wrap-down this interview, I want to get your impression on certain government responses that are very top of mind right now. We talked a little bit about vaccines during this conversation, but obviously, one of the most prescient and pressing things that Americans are kind of stuck dealing with right now is the idea of the vaccine mandate. What are your thoughts on the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate?
Berenson: As I’m sure this will surprise no one at this point in the interview, I think this is a terrible idea. I mean, as I say in “Pandemia,” the lockdowns were an infringement on individual liberty. School closures were terrible for kids and hurt our kids, but mandating adults take a vaccine is another level of infringement.
In the United States, it is very, very hard to force people to take medicine against their will. About the only time you can really do it is psychiatric medicines and a judge has to individually approve that, and two psychiatrists have to say it, and that’s supposed to be reviewed individually after a short period of time.
So, I mean, there’s nothing more personal and nothing more important to somebody’s autonomy and rights as a citizen and as a human being than the right to what you put into your body. And to toss that aside for a virus that kills 3 out of 1,000 people, and many fewer than that healthy adults, is so anti-American, un-American. …
Whatever you think about the vaccines, even if the vaccines really work well—by the way, if the vaccines really work well, then this shouldn’t be an issue, because anybody who got a vaccine is then protected.
The reason that we’re having this fight is, oddly enough, because the vaccines don’t work very well and they don’t protect the people who’ve taken them well enough. And so those people want more protection. They want to force other people to get the vaccine.
Well, in that case, if the vaccines don’t work that well, it should be my choice whether or not to get it. Do I think the risk of COVID is higher for me than the risk of being vaccinated? Do I just not like vaccines? I could have lots of reasons not to want to be vaccinated.
So I think the mandates are wrong and I’m very glad to see that the courts are striking them down. They’ve now been struck down by multiple courts and multiple states at the federal level. I think it’s quite likely that the Supreme Court will strike them down. We have a tradition in this country, we have a strong Constitution, and I’m glad to see the courts step in.
Last year the courts were afraid. They were afraid to step in, they were afraid to challenge lockdown, or when people tried to challenge lockdowns, they wouldn’t step in. I think things have changed and I think there’s been a recognition that this epidemic is not dangerous enough to justify this kind of government overreach.
Blair: One final question for you. Let’s say that you are put in charge, President [Joe] Biden says he will do whatever you tell him to do in relation to COVID, what would your advice to him be based on what you’ve learned about COVID in your research?
Berenson: So, I say this in “Pandemia,” I would do not much. I would sort of try to stand up the hospitals when there are surges. And maybe in very limited cases, when you have a real difficult month somewhere, you could think about encouraging people to work remotely. You can think about closing bars and certain mass indoor gatherings, like a basketball game, stuff like that. Small, short-term moves that don’t include mass lockdowns. I would certainly leave the schools open.
I would encourage and help fund the development of vaccines. And I’d test them properly, not in a matter of months. I’d sort of acknowledge that this is a multiyear problem. … Vaccines and therapeutics need to be tested properly.
And I’d try to protect nursing homes where a huge number of deaths occurred. I would do what DeSantis did and have a lot of testing and get people who are sick out of those nursing homes and certainly not send people with COVID into those nursing homes.
But beyond that, there’s really not that much you can do.
And I would say to people, our doctors, our nurses, they can handle this, go about your lives. If you’re sick, stay home, wash your hands, wear a mask if you’re coughing. That’s a good thing to do. And that’s it. That’s all we can do. That’s all we’re going to do about this. Go and be well.
Blair: That was Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and author of the new book “Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives,” available now wherever books are sold. Alex, I very much enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much for coming on.
Berenson: Thanks for having me.
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