Mr. Bradley Bowyer seems to be a busy man.
From running in the last General Election as part of the Progress Singapore Party’s slate, to manging his day job as a media consultant, the man exhibits an almost admirable enthusiasm for his work. One of our writers even bumped into him learning Mandarin in Beauty World Plaza in order to “connect better to the Chinese-speaking electorate”. As part of his outreach, Mr. Bowyer also releases a podcast. A Slice of Brad, as he calls it, consists of him sitting in his room, explaining his worldviews in sometimes emotive language. In the background, you can occasionally spot a row of hastily arranged books about Singapore and politics, bookmarked and annotated. In one video uploaded onto his channel, Mr. Bowyer passionately says that he joined politics because he wants the best for his son and will fight for a better future for him “regardless of the odds”. From all indications, Mr. Bowyer seems to be a well-meaning Singaporean who is obsessed with contributing to the national discourse.
His newest found obsession, however, isn’t a healthy one.
For years now, the western world has seen science and academia be increasingly politicised. Climate Change might be a hoax because a response to it requires market regulations and intervention – irritating some on the right of the political spectrum. Vaccines might cause autism in children because people don’t trust Big Pharma and the political elites running their countries. Nothing, however, has prepared us for the onslaught on medical science that we witnessed this year. Responding to a pandemic like Covid-19 is inherently a scientific endeavour. When to lockdown, when to ease restrictions, and how to treat patients – the answer to these questions require cold, hard science. Sadly though, instead of unanimously listening to the scientific community, some in the west have employed another approach.
A wave of coronavirus denialism has swept across countries, opportunistically proliferated by politicians who have seen their positions weakened by the pandemic. U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly contradicted his own experts, downplaying the pandemic in the run-up to November’s presidential elections. He has also on multiple occasions, pressured public health institutes like the F.D.A. to approve non-tested and potentially harmful Covid-19 treatments. Singapore is lucky to have a political scene that is mostly devoid of this kind of denialism.
That is until now.
Mr. Bradley Bowyer might believe that there is a global Covid-19 conspiracy that is perpetuated by shadowy figures in the upper echelons of our societies. Or at least that is what you would believe by taking a cursory look at his Facebook and Twitter handles. For months now, the man has been sharing articles from questionable American media sources. The overarching premise: Covid-19 is being used as an excuse to benefit political elites and the big pharmaceutical companies at the expense of the lay person.
Hydroxychloroquine and the Miracle Cure
One point of contention is the effectiveness of an anti-malarial drug named hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) in treating the disease. Heavily promoted by President Trump after a handful of small, poorly controlled studies, the use of the drug has since been denounced by much of the medical community.
The World Health Organisation, Oxford University and even Singapore’s National Centre for Infectious Diseases have stated that HCQ produces little or no reduction in the mortality of hospitalised COVID-19 patients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also reported cases of serious heart rhythm problems and other safety issues, and revoked emergency authorisation for the drug for Covid-19 patients.
This hasn’t stopped Mr. Bowyer and a fringe group of scientists from continuing to promote the drug.
In one tweet, he refers to a Newsweek editorial written by Dr. Harvey Risch, a professor at Yale University who calls for the use of HCQ to treat Covid-19 patients. Dr. Risch points readers to his review (of which he is the only author) published in the American Journal of Epidemiology that cites five studies in support of HCQ. Out of these five studies, none had randomised controlled trials, two didn’t have any corresponding data or publications, and one has been called “uninterpretable”. In general, the scientific community has shunned these studies for not being rigorous enough.
Soon after the Newsweek editorial was published, twenty-four of Dr. Rich’s own colleagues published a stinging open letter criticising his “ardent advocacy” for HCQ. Among other things, the letter notes that Dr. Risch isn’t an expert in infectious disease epidemiology, and that the “evidence thus far has been unambiguous in refuting the premise that HCQ is a potentially effective early therapy for COVID-19.”
In another Facebook post, Mr. Bowyer shares a graph showing that countries that use HCQ have substantially lower death rates than those not using the drug. Facebook itself has flagged this particular post for “false information” which means that “the content has no basis in fact”. This is due to a few reasons. Firstly, the graph cherry-picks – Singapore, for example, does not use HCQ, and it has the lowest case-fatality rate in the world (0.00048% mortality rate as of 2 Sep). Mr. Bowyer himself has pointed this out in another Facebook post. However, for some reason, Singapore has been conveniently left out of the graph.
There is also flawed reasoning – the analysis assumes that all individuals assigned to the HCQ treatment group actually used HCQ to treat COVID-19 and that those in the control group did not. This was probably not the case and is indicative of the overall absence of the scientific method. This is expected, considering that the graph was lifted from an amateur political commentator on Twitter and isn’t a rigorous, well-designed clinical study.
Kopi’s analysis of Mr. Bowyer’s Twitter and Facebook pages show that he has mentioned the benefits of HCQ at least six times.
Just a flu
Often, Mr. Bowyer downplays the scale and the severity of the pandemic.
On August 6, he compares Covid-19 death rates against those of the common flu in Singapore. The argument is a compelling one: Singapore sees about 1,500 people be hospitalised and 588 people die from the common flu every year. Pneumonia too kills about 4,000 people per year. These statistics seem drastically scarier than the 27 people who have passed away due to Covid-19. “We do not lock Singapore down for flu and pneumonia or even have any special protocols for protecting the elderly from it…” he says. Why then should the government lockdown or have social distancing measures in place for Covid-19?
While the statistics are accurate, the argument is rather misleading. There are three factors that make Covid-19 a scarier virus than the common flu. Firstly, global hospitalisation rates for Covid-19 (which hover at around 10-20%) are about 5-10 times higher than those of the common flu (around 2%). The coronavirus might also be around two times more contagious than the common flu, and is harder to detect considering asymptomatic patients and transmissions. This means that without social distancing measures, more people will get the coronavirus, and of those people, way more of them would require medical attention as compared to those getting the flu. This can quickly overwhelm any healthcare system – even Singapore’s. In fact, according to the Ministry of Health, Singapore’s private and public hospitals had 11,321 acute care beds in 2019. By April of this year, half of the eight public hospitals were at least 75 per cent full. This was a bit worrying considering that it was before the peak of the pandemic, and considering that most non-urgent treatments had been postponed. The third factor is the death rates. Singapore’s Covid-19 mortality rate is exceptionally low precisely because of the lockdown and social distancing measures. If for example, Singapore didn’t ring-fence migrant workers and put them under lockdown, the community mortality rates would have been significantly higher, considering that these workers are younger and healthier than the average Singaporean.
Overall, attempts like these to minimise the potential dangers of Covid-19 are flawed and slightly disingenuous. Mr. Bowyer has done so at least six times on Facebook and Twitter. There are also other controversial posts which question the use of face masks, for example, that require further fact checking.
Fake News, but who?
While minority opinions, novel interpretations and challenges to medical and scientific orthodoxy can be important, what makes Mr. Bowyer’s posts pernicious is the global conspiracy theory angle that is often applies to it all.
In the world painted by his posts, Big Pharma might be conspiring with traditional media outlets, social media companies and government agencies to make the pandemic seem worse than it actually is. This might be to act as a “cover for collapsing financial systems, a failing globalisation program” and to “make billions through an unnecessary vaccination program which, when paired with ideas like tracking, chipping and medical passports, represent another layer of elite wealth and control of the general population”.
Most of his posts pertaining to Covid-19 reach this conclusion in one way or another. Take the aforementioned Newsweek editorial written by Dr. Risch, he shares it with the caption:
“Why is this not getting wider attention? Maybe too many vested interests who stand to make billions from unnecessary vaccination programs or removing the fear others are using to get more population control? Maybe there is evil in the world?”Brad Bowyer, Aug 23, Twitter
Mr. Bowyer also seems to have lost confidence in traditional media outlets and social media companies. In one of his posts, he chides big tech companies for fact checking and removing access to a video created by a group calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors”.
Posted in July, the video shows a group of people wearing white medical coats, speaking against the backdrop of the Supreme Court in Washington. They go onto share various misleading claims about the virus, including that HCQ was an effective coronavirus treatment and that masks did not slow the spread of the virus. The video went viral, shared by President Trump and through Facebook groups dedicated to anti-vaccination movements and conspiracy theories like QAnon.
Soon, it emerged that none of the most vocal members of the group were on the actual front lines of the pandemic and that some didn’t practice at all. These were doctors that had suspicious origins and motivations. One such member, Dr. Stella Immanuel, for example, claimed that sexually transmitted infections are caused by “spirit spouses” and that “reptilian spirits” and other extra-terrestrials run the U.S. government. It is these voices that Mr. Bowyer feels the need to protect – arguing that their censorship “will be revealed as a crime against humanity” if hydroxychloroquine is actually effective.
This distain for traditional media outlets is rather ironic, considering that Mr. Bowyer has been sharing articles from sources that are often associated with spreading misinformation. On at least four separate occasions, he has shared articles from ZeroHedge, a far-right, libertarian financial blog that has been banned from Twitter for publishing the private details of a Chinese scientist who it said was responsible for the pandemic. The site also received a 0/100 trust rating from NewsGuard for severely violating “basic standards of credibility and transparency”.
In another instance, Mr. Bowyer shared an article from the Ron Paul Institute titled “We Don’t Need No Stinking Vaccine for Covid-19”. The article’s conclusion was that Covid-19 vaccines aren’t needed if we boost the body’s immune system. This would be a rather innocent argument, that is if you didn’t notice the advertisement at the end of the article.
“If you would like to boost your immune system consider checking out Dr. Mercola’s website at www.mercola.com. He’s an osteopathic MD with a focus on natural health.”
The Dr. Joseph Mercola in question is an American “alternative medicine” proponent who has been ordered multiple times by U.S. authorities to stop making false claims about his medicine. He has also been compared to the “snake oil salesmen of the 1800s” for his tendency to steer well into pseudoscience. Ironically though, Mr. Bowyer shares the Ron Paul Institute article bemoaning the abundance of hidden agendas and misinformation:
“In a world of disinformation and many agendas we need to stop and get back to reality and common sense and not be mentally herded like dumb cattle. Please open your eyes and mindBrad Bowyer, June 13, Twitter
There are a few inconvenient questions that Mr. Bowyer’s posts raise. Why wasn’t POFMA evoked, for example, when the outcomes clearly and objectively undermine sound public health advice? Even Facebook stepped in to post label his posts as false information on at least two instances.
For Mr Bowyer’s part, there are also inherent tensions in his arguments. When Parliament was dissolved in June in the lead up to the elections, the politician called the action “reckless”– implying that Covid-19 was still very much a public health issue. However, less than a month after the elections he goes back to downplaying the pandemic.
“People are not dying in the streets, (Covid-19) is not more deadly than SARs etc, it is not a new Spanish Flu and when you look at the statistics there is absolutely no reason not to open economies unless you have a vested interest to do otherwise”.Brad Bowyer, August 5, Facebook
Whether both these contradicting views can be reconciled is yet to be seen. The P.S.P. and Mr. Bowyer have yet to respond to request for an interview or for comments. One thing is for sure though. Dissenters in the scientific community have always relied on the same well-established cliché to advance their cause – that of the courageous independent scientist resisting orthodoxy. The cliché is often introduced with the example of Galileo’s defence of the heliocentric theory (earth revolves around the sun) against the Catholic Church – and how he eventually turned out to be right.
But being a dissenter is not difficult, the hard part is actually having a better theory.
Theories from Mr. Bowyer and the scientists he backs just don’t pass that test.