Martin Kulldorff joins John Tierney to discuss his firing from Harvard University and the importance of scientific debate.

Audio Transcript

John Tierney: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is John Tierney, a contributing editor to City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Dr. Martin Kulldorff, a former professor at Harvard Medical School. He’s also a plaintiff in a case that’s being heard by the Supreme Court this month, involving censorship of his ideas about Covid. Today, we’re going to discuss yet another scandal at Harvard, and this one doesn’t involve plagiarism or anti-Semitism. It involves Harvard’s notorious hostility to free speech and scientific inquiry.

Back in October, I wrote in City Journal about Harvard’s double standard on free speech. That it’s fine on campus to support Hamas, but don’t dare say anything that offends progressives. I didn’t mention Martin’s case because at that time he hadn’t gone public, but now he has in the City Journal article revealing how he lost his job at Harvard after he criticized the disastrous and unscientific policies during the Covid pandemic that were being pushed by government officials with a lot of help from Harvard scientists.

Now, when the pandemic began, Martin was recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on vaccines and their side effects. During his career, which began in his native Sweden, he was instrumental in designing systems used by the CDC and other health agencies for monitoring vaccine safety and adverse effects. He was a professor at the Harvard Medical School, and also a member of the CDC’s Covid Vaccine Safety Working Group, but he soon discovered that his expertise would get him in trouble if it contradicted the version of the “science” being enforced by the CDC and Harvard scientists, one of whom became the CDC’s Director.

Martin, thanks very much for joining us today. Now, your troubles began early in the pandemic when you saw the contrast between U.S. policy and the policy back in your native country, Sweden. Tell us about that.

Martin Kulldorff: Well, as an infectious disease epidemiologist and a biostatistician, it was obvious to me that as soon as we had the outbreaks in northern Italy, in Iran, after China, that this would spread to the whole world. While anybody can get it, there was a thousandfold difference in mortality risk between the old and the young, so following basic principles of public health, it was obvious that we should do everything we could to protect those older people, because they’re high risk, while letting children and young adults live close to normal life, to keep the schools open, and that’s what Sweden did. But in the U.S., it went for a major lockdown with school closures and other lockdown measures, which went against centuries of experience with infectious diseases. With enormous collateral damage not only in education, but on public health. On cancer, cardiovascular disease, mental health, and so on. So, this was the policy that went against basic public health, but we weren’t allowed to talk about it. I could publish an opus in my native Sweden, but when I tried in the U.S., it didn’t work during that spring of 2020.

John Tierney: Right, you had pieces rejected, and so you then got together later in 2020, the first year. You and Jay Bhattacharya and Sunetra Gupta from Oxford, James from Stanford. You got together and you co-authored the Great Barrington Declaration. Just tell us about that and the reaction that happened after that.

Martin Kulldorff: They pretended that there was scientific consensus for these lockdowns, so the three of us who all work in infectious disease epidemiology from reasonably respectable universities argued what others had done too for focus protection, to better protect older people who were the high-risk people while keeping schools open and not locking down society, which I think was the biggest assault on the working and middle class since segregation and the Vietnam War here in the U.S. When we did that, we got many, many co-signers. Tens of thousands of scientists and health professionals, and we have almost a million total signatures, but there was a lot of pushback from the establishment, both politicians and scientists and the media.

John Tierney: And you got a lot of pushback at Harvard too, right?

Martin Kulldorff: Correct. I was at different times accused of being a right-winger, which had nothing to do with public health.

John Tierney: And you’re not a right-winger, are you? I mean, you had done work on human rights in Latin America, right? In Central America before that?

Martin Kulldorff: Yeah. When I was young, I was working for a human rights organization, protecting people who were threatened and disappeared and killed by the military, right-wing military government of Guatemala. It was very strange because in the US it was considered right-wing to be against lockdowns, even though it damaged the middle and working class, but in Sweden, which was the only major western country who did not lock down, and who kept schools open for all kids ages one to 15, even during the spring of 2020, was run by a social Democrat prime minister. I think one reason why maybe Sweden did that was because he’s actually from the working class, he’s the welder, so he knew the effect on the working class of these terrible lockdowns.

John Tierney: Boy, that’s interesting. So, you were criticizing the lockdowns, and again, you’re one of the world’s leading experts on vaccines. You also had some problems with vaccines, kind of on both sides of the issue. Do you want to tell us about that? What you saw about what was going on with the vaccine policy and the vaccine guidance that was coming out of the federal government?

Martin Kulldorff: So, vaccines in general are very important for public health. For example, the measles vaccines, and polio vaccine, and so on, but we have known for about 2,500 years that if you’ve had the disease already, then you have immunity. We’ve known that since 430 BC during the Athenian plague. Suddenly Covid comes along, and then all those university professors and public health officials forget about infection-acquired immunity, or sometimes called natural immunity. I mean, the vaccine is sort of mimicking that kind of natural immunity.

I’m a big fan of the measles vaccine, but I’ve never had it myself because I had measles as a kid before the vaccine was available, and the same thing with Covid. I had Covid before I was eligible to have the vaccine. There was no reason for me to take the vaccine then, and in fact, it would be very unscientific, but also unethical. Because in 2021, there was a shortage of vaccines, and older people, they were the one who at higher risk, so they’re the one who really needed this vaccine. In my view, then, if you approve vaccine, you should be against these vaccine mandates that forced the vaccines on people who didn’t need it while there were older people around the world who hadn’t gotten it yet, who did need it.

John Tierney: Now, there are a couple of vaccine controversies. You tweeted out early on, and you said vaccines are great, but they should be focused on the people who did, and you got a lot of pushback against that, right?

Martin Kulldorff: Yeah, so I got a question on Twitter about the Covid vaccine, and I answered that they’re important for older people because they’re higher risk, but you don’t need it if you already had Covid and children don’t need it because they are such minuscule risk from this, Covid. As with any drug and vaccine, there are risks with them, and some of those are not yet maybe known, so if you have a high risk of dying from Covid, if there’s a small risk, you can accept that. On the other hand, if your risk of dying from Covid is minuscule, then even a small risk from the vaccine will sort of tip the balance in the benefit risk calculation and making the risks higher than the benefits. Therefore, there was no point in pushing these on children. They should have been focused on older people, who were the ones who were at high risk. Older people who hadn’t already had Covid.

John Tierney: Right. Now, incredibly enough, I mean, this is, as you say, something that had been known for thousands of years about natural immunity being acquired, but many leading scientists, including colleagues of yours at Harvard, including Rochelle Walensky who became the CDC director, they published an article in the Lancet disputing this idea, right? Saying that we don’t know if people who’ve had Covid actually have acquired any immunity?

Martin Kulldorff: Yeah, that’s pretty astonishing, I have to say. Because first of all, we know generally about natural immunity for 2,500 years, but also specifically for Covid, we knew that. They published that in October of 2020. We already have information about people who had the disease nine, 10 months ago, and there were very few reinfections and very few serious reinfections, so with immunity sometimes, like with measles, you get lifelong immunity. You never get it again. With other things, like the other four coronaviruses, which turns out to be true also for Covid, you don’t get lifelong immunity. But the thing is, when you get it a second or third times down the road, you have sufficient immunity so that the risk of mortality is very low, so it’s the first time you get infected that you are at high risk for mortality. After that, you are at lower risk.

John Tierney: The CDC, unlike countries in Europe, and unlike sensible policy, the CDC recommended that everyone, even people who had had Covid get vaccinated. That it made no exemptions, and states had vaccine mandates that had no exemptions for people who had already had Covid, which meant that a lot of frontline health workers were fired. That people were fired from the military, who did not. Young people who were never at risk, who’d already had Covid, they were fired from their jobs for not doing that. That’s what happened to you at Harvard too, right? Do you want to tell about what happened there?

Martin Kulldorff: Yeah. First of all, I mean, many nurses, for example, were fired, and then it was hard time to keep the hospitals up and running because of that. That’s very strange because these were nurses who, in 2020, they were taking care of Covid patients. Many of them got infected. They were home for a few days, or a week or so, and then they came back. Then, even though they had better immunity than those who never had Covid, including the administrators who made this decision, they were fired. After taking care of Covid patients for a year, getting Covid, now they have superb immunity, they were still fired.

To me, that’s unconscious and unethical, for the hospital and university administrators to do that. I didn’t take care of patients because I’m not a clinician. I’m not a physician, but I had Covid, so there was no reason for me to get the vaccine. I have a genetic immune deficiency, Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency that makes me very sensitive to infections so that complicates further, so there was no reason for me to get the vaccine. There were certain risks with it so I chose not to take the vaccine, and because of that, I was fired.

John Tierney: Now, you applied for an exemption. You say Harvard did give some people exemptions, is that right?

Martin Kulldorff: Yes. They gave medical exemptions to, religious exemptions, to some people. I did not get either.

John Tierney: I mean, aside from the fact that you had natural immunity, which was reason enough not to get it, but I mean, you had a reason. You had this immune deficiency yourself that certainly gave Harvard very reasonable grounds for giving you an exemption, right?

Martin Kulldorff: I agree with that, yes.

John Tierney: Yes, and yet they refused to give it to you, they fired you, and then later when the—we should say, of course, the universities in the U.S. were really just so unethical and unscientific in forcing people, in forcing all these young people who were at risk of myocarditis, had very little risk from Covid, and certainly those who’d already had Covid, forcing all these people to get shots and boosters.

Martin Kulldorff: I think it’s kind of amazing because by mandating vaccines for those who already had Covid, they are de facto denying natural immunity. To me, to have a university deny infection-acquired immunity, that’s like having a university questioning whether the earth is flat or round, for example, or questioning gravity. These are all basic scientific truths that we have known for a long, long time, and then just to throw it away seems quite astonishing, I think.

John Tierney: It’s really back to the Dark Ages. As an aside, so they require it for students who are young and at minimal risk from Covid, but not for faculty who are older, which is just one more example of irrationality, right?

Martin Kulldorff: That’s true.

John Tierney: Now, finally, they’ve stopped requiring faculty to have the shot, and they could hire you back then, right?

Martin Kulldorff: If they wanted, yeah. Sure, they could do that.

John Tierney: Just to be clear, people may wonder, listeners, if you had tenure. Well, at the Harvard Medical School, most professors do not actually have tenure, right? They work on contracts that are just routinely and automatically extended year after year, and you’d been there for, what, 18 years, I think? Is that right?

Martin Kulldorff: Full professors at Harvard, which I was a full professor, have appointment of indefinite duration.

John Tierney: Oh, I see. Oh, okay.

Martin Kulldorff: So, that’s sort of equivalent to tenure.

John Tierney: Basically they, in your case, and it seems pretty clear that this was done because they didn’t—I mean, they could easily have given you an exemption because you had a valid medical reason for it, and they could easily rehire you, but they haven’t.

Martin Kulldorff: The thing is also, this is something that was done at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is one of the Harvard affiliate hospitals. The Mass Brigham General and Brigham Women’s are where a large, I think probably the majority of Harvard medical faculty works, so it was sort of a decision made by the Mass Brigham General, and then Harvard has sort of followed that.

John Tierney: Yes. I see. I mean, it’s really kind of frightening to think that the people making these policies are the ones, we’re going to their hospitals. You wonder what else, what other mistakes they’re making. Now, you said that at Harvard you got a lot pushback, including from Rochelle Walensky, who at the start of the pandemic was a professor at Harvard, and then she became the CDC director. You were on a radio program, right, giving your views of Covid? What happened then?

Martin Kulldorff: Well, scientific debate is very important when there are different scientists with different views, so that’s a good thing, but it has to be a two-way street. What happened was that I was interviewed by the NPR station in Boston, and then as an official representative of Brigham Mass General, where she sat on the board. She came on to sort of contradict me without me having any opportunity to be a back and forth, so it was basically, I said I was interviewed, and then she came on to dismiss what I said. Of course, she should have the right to do that and argue against what I said, but I think it should have been a back-and-forth process, so it was kind of a strange situation. Soon after she became the CDC director, I was fired from the Covid Vaccine Safety Working Group. You would think that it was because I was somehow against the vaccine, but it was actually the opposite.

John Tierney: You were fired there for being too pro-vaccine, right?

Martin Kulldorff: Yeah, and I’m probably the only one who has been fired by the CDC for being two pro-vaccine. They decided to do a pause on the J&J vaccine in the spring of 2021 because there were some reports of blood clots among especially young women. So, I think there was fine to do a pause on the younger people who also had the least need for this vaccine, but I argued against making a pause on older people who really needed this vaccine because there was a shortage vaccines at the time, and the one dose, J&J, was especially important to reach people who are hard to reach, like in rural areas or homeless people, but that wasn’t popular, that I voiced an opposing view. Although four days after they fired me, they changed and dropped the pause.

John Tierney: So, you’re fired for being right about an issue where they were wrong? This was, again, Rochelle Walensky? She was the head of the CDC at that point?

Martin Kulldorff: She was the head of the CDC, and she was involved in the correspondence about me at the time, yeah.

John Tierney: Boy, it’s astonishing and very frightening that our institutions are being run by people like this. You also said that I think colleagues of yours at Harvard had tried to arrange a debate between you and other, because the Harvard faculty was toeing the CDC line on this, and they tried to arrange your debate, but nobody would debate you publicly even while they were criticizing you?

Martin Kulldorff: Yeah, so it’s important to realize that in private conversation with colleagues at Harvard, there were very many who supported the Great Barrington Declaration, including a former chair of the Department of Epidemiology. Some of them were public about it, most of them were private about it, which I completely understand why they did not want to go public, but it’s important to realize that a lot of faculty at Harvard has very similar view as I had on this point. But there were vocal people who followed the Fauci line of things, and there were two colleagues at Harvard who tried to arrange a debate, which I think makes sense, but there were no takers on the other side that they could find.

John Tierney: I mean, it’s frightening to see what’s happened to our institutions, and this is really. Harvard Medical School receives enormous amounts of federal money in the interest of advancing public health, and here was the biggest health crisis in a long time. The school is basically not doing, it’s not serving the public. It’s just trying to please the federal funding agencies and go along with the official consensus instead of actually saying, “Here’s what the science is. Here’s what we should be doing.”

Martin Kulldorff: The Brigham Mass General hospitals, Harvard hospitals, I think they’re the biggest recipient of NIH funds in the whole country. It’s over a billion dollars a year. I mean, I understand that they are careful and may not want to upset the NIH director, Francis Collins, and the NIAID director, Anthony Fauci, who sits on the biggest pile of medical research money in the world. After the Great Barrington Declaration, they called the three of us fringe epidemiologists, and Francis Collins, the NIH director, asked for a takedown of us, so I understand why many scientists decided to be quiet.

John Tierney: No, and there was a great deal of censorship in social media, and you’re a plaintiff in a case. The Supreme Court is hearing arguments involving the censorship of, right?

Martin Kulldorff: Yeah, so I was censored by Twitter, by LinkedIn. That’s owned by Microsoft, by YouTube, which is owned by Google and by Facebook. We know that some of these were at the behest of the government, so the federal government asked Twitter and other social media companies to censor information that went against what the government was saying. Well, my view is that if you’re a scientist and you have some scientific views, if there’s a scientist that is not willing to debate and discuss it with other scientists, you shouldn’t trust them. It doesn’t matter if they’re a professor at Harvard, or Stanford, or wherever. If they’re not willing to debate their views with other scientists, then don’t trust them.

John Tierney: That’s very sound advice. I hope that your case goes well at the Supreme Court. Just one very quick final question. If Harvard admitted that it was wrong and offered you your job back, would you take it?

Martin Kulldorff: Well, there are many great things with working at Harvard, and I didn’t have any problems with any of my direct colleagues that I actually have worked with, and I’m still on very good terms with them, so no, it would be great to go back and work with my old colleagues.

John Tierney: They’re looking for a new president, and it’s maybe too much to hope for that the new president will start undoing some of the disastrous policies and suppressing free speech at Harvard. I hope you get your job back, and I hope your case goes well at the Supreme Court.

Thank you very much for joining us today. Don’t forget to check out Martin Kulldorff’s article in City Journal about his experience at Harvard and with the CDC throughout pandemic. You can also check out my article in City Journal on Harvard’s double standard on free speech that’s at You can also find City Journal on X @CityJournal, and on Instagram @City Journal_MI. As always, if you like what you heard on the podcast, give us a five-star rating on iTunes.

Dr. Martin Kulldorff, thank you very much for joining us.

Martin Kulldorff: Thank you, John. It was a great pleasure talking to you.

Photo: John Coletti/Photodisc via Getty Images

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