Written for PANDA by Karen Harradine, edited by Chris Waldburger
This is the final part of a three-part series focusing on the role of Professor Salim S. Abdool Karim in the South African implementation of a radical and global response to a respiratory virus.
As we have shown, Karim is not an independent expert working critically with the latest science, but rather a key player in a conglomerate which has revolutionised public health policy forever. Karim has constantly said that there is no going back to normal; even if society managed to do so after twentieth century influenza pandemics, it will not be the case this time.
Is this revolution based on critical and reflective science? Or is it a function of the politics and social dynamics of the few core organisations to which virtually all politically powerful scientific advisors belong, by reason of common funding and reciprocal appointments?
Karim and his global peers have rarely dissented from one another or the consistently applied policies legitimised by their credentialed endorsement. The seemingly spontaneous adoption of slogans such as ‘The New Normal’ and ‘Build Back Better’ reflect a worrying lack of independent thought.
The scientific method is founded upon questioning, testing and revising original hypotheses, not upon slogans and lockstep policies. ‘The science is settled’ – repeated ad nauseam by many public health experts globally – is an oxymoron. Thus the question is: has the scientific method been applied in these unprecedented times?
Scientists such as Karim have become almost unthinkably influential in our lives. Much of this power is due to the media’s fawning deference to them and their unquestioned credentials. Arguably, their public rhetoric has superseded scientific study.
This becomes even more concerning when there is no robust scientific evidence to be found that supports their rhetoric. Masking is an obvious example of this. The concept of mass asymptomatic transmission is another.
Previously, we examined Karim’s willingness to admit the harms and futility of lockdowns in a scientific journal – but noted an absence of any admission or mention of this in his public utterances.
Karim’s promotion of another new public health slogan is equally concerning: ‘None of us are safe if one of us is not’. What can this possibly mean from both a scientific and policy perspective? It is simply scientifically untrue for a disease such as Covid-19. On a policy level it admits no limiting principle in the single-minded pursuit of one health outcome. What is worse, in Karim’s context of vaccination, this memetic idea has been the basis for vaccine mandates, which threaten to alter forever the relationship between citizen and medical authority.
All for the sake of a non-sterilising vaccine which is not necessary for the vast majority who were either never at risk of severe outcomes from Covid-19, or have developed robust natural immunity.
How have so many mistakes been made, and why has there been so little will by scientists like Karim to correct these mistakes for the historical record?
Our hypothesis is that public health is no longer guided by rigorous science, but by the political and financial momentum of a global conglomerate.
This series has detailed how entrenched Karim is in this conglomerate. But what of his relationship with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and his ties to the World Health Organization (WHO) – the global body which is funded by the BMGF to the same degree as a large nation-state? How does private money and bureaucratic influence dominate public health discourse?
Perhaps the great turning point of the Covid-19 response was the moment Bruce Aylward, the leader of the WHO’s task team in Wuhan, declared that all nations were duty-bound to follow the Chinese lockdown model. Once Italy embraced this and the United Kingdom followed suit, the rest of the world fell in line. The question of whether world leaders’ actions were motivated by hard science, or were panic reactions to media and voter backlash as death tallies and case counts flickered on televisions screens across the globe 24/7 – remains unanswered.
The general public imagines that the WHO is an objective body that rises above politics and financial concerns. However, their sources of funding do not bear scrutiny.
In 2021, the WHO received over $1 billion from Germany and $1.72 billion from European Union states. The next largest funder of the world health body is the BMGF, with $591 million. This does not include donations from the vaccine alliance, Gavi, which is itself funded by the BMGF and disbursed over $400 million to the WHO. By comparison, the USA donated $445 million in 2021.
The BMGF thus has a seat at the WHO’s table, so to speak. Together with its vaccine alliance partner, Gavi, it has dominated the Covid-19 vaccine programme, by means of COVAX, a global body bringing together the WHO, Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), to distribute the vaccines globally. COVAX describes itself as “the only truly global solution to this pandemic.”
CEPI is funded by the BMGF and the Wellcome Trust. The Wellcome Trust is a British research institution that administers the fortune of British-American pharmaceutical magnate, Henry Wellcome. The BMGF regularly offers grants to many of Wellcome’s projects around the world.
South Africa is a Gavi donor and a member of COVAX.
As for Karim, he holds several prestigious positions at the WHO. The fact that he takes centre-stage in a WHO photograph of its multiple advisors illustrates this. He chairs the WHO’s Strategic and Technical Advisory Committee for HIV and is a member of its TB-HIV Task Force. He is also one of the nine members of the WHO’s Science Council, which directly advises the WHO’s Director-General on issues impacting global health.
The Science Council is undoubtedly at the heart of Karim’s ‘New Normal’ post-Covid health policy. In July 2022, this council published a report recommending “accelerating access to genomics for global health”. It insists that:
“public health concerns may justify genomic screening of either whole populations or subpopulations of asymptomatic individuals.”
The report also notes, however, the ethical and legal risks of such a project:
“When genomic information is derived from human subjects (either patients or research subjects), it has the potential to violate privacy, create the possibility of discrimination in employment and insurance, confer inappropriate financial gain, or convey cultural disrespect. In other situations, such as in the surveillance and investigation of pathogens, this information has very limited potential to pose threats to individuals.”
It also states that South Africa is a global leader in discovering new virus variants – such as omicron – which makes it an ideal staging ground for development by the WHO as an African pioneer in genomic surveillance.
Given the freedoms seized by authorities during lockdown while cycling through various arbitrary restriction levels, it seems doubtful that limiting principles of genomic data exploitation would be clearly defined or even respected. It is clear that Karim understood the moral and practical pitfalls of lockdowns, yet pushed ahead anyway. Once a narrative of crisis is established in the media, civil liberties are seen as the quaint province of ‘denialists’.
The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), linked to Karim as explained in Part Two, is also conducting research into genomic surveillance, partnering with the Beijing Genomics Institute.
Should South Africa be concerned with these open links to the Beijing regime? After all, the Chinese Communist Party pioneered hard lockdowns. The WHO’s Secretary-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whom Karim advises, was reportedly backed by China when he was elected to the post in 2017 and has commended China for their Covid-19 response. It bears repeating that, almost without hesitation, our public health experts adopted policies previously deemed imaginable only under a totalitarian setting. Does this compromise these experts?
Given the interwoven nature of all these public health bodies, given the nature of their funding by powerful non-state entities, given their enthusiasm for a totalitarian approach to public health, how neutral, trustworthy and independent can a figure like Karim be?
Over and above the WHO, Karim is also ensconced within the BMGF itself. For the past twelve years he has sat on the BMGF’s Scientific Advisory Committee. In December 2020, Bill Gates penned a tribute to both Karim and his wife, praising them for their roles in leading AIDS and Covid-19 research, and promoting them as pandemic experts.
Scientists are people who, like everyone else, are subjective, influenced by personal relationships and financial concerns and prone to bias. Scientific training exists to promote disciplined objectivity in a field of expertise, yet all scientific endeavour takes place in a human context, with concerns and pressures faced by every individual. It is impossible for any scientist to be free of some degree of influence when selecting fields of research and choosing which particular hypotheses to investigate.
It is not a flaw to be a human. However, determinedly promoting policies that remodel human life without taking one’s own fallibility into account certainly suggests unbridled hubris.
It is not enough to consider that the authoritative scientists of the Covid-19 era are compromised. One must equally consider why the media and elected officials failed to interrogate these suddenly-anointed scientific czars.
Why was the web of the global public health conglomerate never investigated by major media houses until Politico and Die Welt made a belated effort long after the fact?
Why was discussion of the outsized influence of Bill Gates considered verboten and the terrain of ‘conspiracy theorists’, even as the philanthropic house he built became more powerful than any other institution or group during the Covid-19 response?
For South Africans, such consideration must begin with our own experts – scientists such as Professor Karim. What influences him? What drives him? Given the events of the last two and a half years, it is naive to pretend he is a neutral actor.
By asking questions about Karim, we raise the ultimate question about the entire Covid-19 crisis.
We have witnessed the rise of a new class of ‘experts’, granted extraordinary power to repeal ancient liberties. Most critically, these experts have brooked neither dissent nor debate. Has such strange new authority been a success, and should it be tolerated again?
Our moment of decision is now.