Parsing Francis Collins’s comments on what happened in D.C.

posted: May 4, 2024

tl;dr: Collins openly states the main error made in the U.S. government’s pandemic response...

I have to give (now former, thankfully) NIH Director Francis Collins credit for one thing: at least he is willing to publicly face questions and some level of criticism of his actions before and during the COVID-19 endemic. His comrade Anthony Fauci, by contrast, only agrees to interviews with sycophants. Collins even owns up to some of his mistakes, although not all. His latest partial mea culpa is captured in a 1.5 hour video on YouTube entitled A Deplorable and an Elitist Walk into a Bar: Francis Collins and Wilk Wilkinson, in which he and Wilk Wilkinson, a podcaster whose day job is managing truckers (i.e. “essential workers”), answer questions from two moderators and an audience.

The focus of this discussion is entirely on the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic. There is not a word mentioned on the origin of COVID-19. To save you the trouble of watching all 1.5 hours, I’ve captured the highlights here.

Collins admits that the U.S. public health institutions have lost credibility due to ignorance

In reference to a question about masks, although it applies more generally, Collins states at the 16:20 mark that: “We did not admit our ignorance. And that was a profound mistake. And we lost a lot of credibility along the way.” The “we” Collins is referring to is the public health institutions, including the NIH (run by him at the time), the Centers for Disease Control, and state and local public health bodies. Not admitting ignorance is the main problem with highly credentialed individuals like Collins, as I described in my The problem with PhDs post and also my Mistakes weren’t made post. It’s also why it is so easy to fool these people, as I described in my How to fool a PhD post.

Like any good bureaucrat, Collins blames a lack of funding

At the 32:50 mark, Collins states that “we have to blame our own government process for having very much underfunded and under-supported public health in this country for many, many years,” a comment that draws applause from the audience. Well, apparently we had enough money to fund risky gain-of-function virus research in Wuhan, China. Might the problem instead be how we chose to spend the money that was available?

Also like any good bureaucrat, Collins argues for more centralized control

At the 33:38 mark, Collins states “If there’s one thing that maybe a country ought to do across the whole nation in a uniform way it’s public health.” Well, if it is good to centralize public health at a national level, isn’t it even better to globalize it at the WHO level? This would be disastrous, as illustrated by the WHO’s actions during the pandemic. The Taiwanese CDC provided better information about what was happening in mainland China during the initial outbreak than did the WHO, and the Taiwanese CDC is not even allowed to be a member of the WHO because the Chinese Communist Party won’t allow it. Later, Collins admits the need for local decision making, and one of the moderators points out his contradiction at the 1:22:38 mark.

Three people sitting on a stage with a dark backdrop and a small table with cups, two of whom have downcast expressions while the third, an older grey-haired man with a microphone, gestures while he speaks

Ex-NIH Director Francis Collins explaining how public health decisions are made in the United States of America

Also like any good bureaucrat, Collins envies China’s single-party authoritarian government

At the 42:40 mark, Collins states “China didn’t have a problem with politicians disagreeing with the leadership. Nor did they have a media problem.” He says this in a somewhat joking manner, but why even bring up this point? Hint to Francis Collins: this is America, not China. As Wilk Wilkinson so eloquently states at the 42:44 mark, “Mandates and dictates are not the right way. Don’t make mandates, make better arguments.” That seems beyond Collins’s abilities and mindset.

Collins admits just one mistake on his views of The Great Barrington Declaration

On October 8, 2020, Collins in an infamous email to Anthony Fauci called the authors of The Great Barrington Declaration "three fringe epidemiologists". He now states, at the 49:28 mark, “These three epidemiologists, very distinguished by their credentials…” and, at the 51:10 mark, that “I regret that I used some terminology that I probably shouldn’t, that somebody should put forward a devastating takedown of the dangers here, and I regret that.” Yet he then says that the devastating takedown did appear, and credits it for saving tens of thousands of lives.

Finally, Collins states the devastating truth about how public health decisions are made

The big admission of error by Collins occurs at the 54:34 mark: “This is a really important point: if you’re a public health person, and you’re trying to make a decision, you have this very narrow view of what the right decision is, and that is: something that will save a life. Doesn’t matter what else happens. So you attach infinite value to stopping the disease and saving a life. You attach zero value to whether this actually totally disrupts people’s lives, ruins the economy, and has many kids kept out of school in a way that they never quite recover from. Collateral damage. This is a public health mindset. And I think a lot of us involved in trying to make those recommendations had that mindset and that was really unfortunate. That’s another mistake we made.”

Well, he’s right that it is a really important point. Watching how decisions were made over time, I and many others deduced that was ultimately the thinking that was guiding the government’s decisions. It’s why I was so wrong when I wrote my Living with the virus post in June, 2020. Back then I thought I lived in an America that valued individual liberty, governed by rulers who would value the lives of children and hard-working Americans alongside those of the elderly with multiple comorbidities. “Women and children first” used to be the rule for putting people into lifeboats. I was wrong. Kids are now "collateral damage".

I greatly appreciate Wilk Wilkinson’s efforts to bring visibility to the impact of the U.S. government’s pandemic response. He’s a level-headed thinker, with a strong understanding of human behavior, the scientific method, and what it means to be an American citizen, in contrast to a Chinese citizen under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Unfortunately, I still think very little has been learned by those in government from the COVID-19 response. The best three words that still summarize the U.S. response to the next pandemic are: lockdown until vaccine.

Related post: Parsing Francis Collins’s comments on what happened in Wuhan, part one