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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, February 26, 2024

Controversial oncologist Dr. Vinay Prasad disavowed by dean, lectures to GSBS

The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences is pictured on Sept. 30, 2021.

Dr. Vinay Prasad delivered a virtual lecture to the Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences on Feb. 17 following GSBS Dean Daniel Jay’s disavowal of one of Prasad’s blog posts, which Jay characterized as antisemitic.

Several GSBS students and faculty objected to Tufts offering Prasad a platform to speak in light of his blog posts and other public comments about COVID-19, which they argue undermine public health and inappropriately invoke Nazism by comparing current mask and vaccine requirements to totalitarianism in Nazi Germany.

In the past year, Prasad has published blog posts, articles and videos criticizing the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other institutions, for their COVID-19 policies and rhetoric. Prasad did not respond to multiple requests from the Daily to comment on this story.

Prasad, an oncologist and associate professor at the University of California San Francisco, was invited to speak about reading and interpreting medical literature in a talk that was tailored to the pharmacology and drug development program but was originally open to the entire Tufts community before being made only accessible for Tufts GSBS affiliates. 

Prior to the lecture, some faculty and students at GSBS recognized Prasad’s name from statements in his October 2021 blog post and YouTube videos comparing COVID-19-related public health restrictions to the totalitarian policies of Nazi Germany. The blog post forecasts a descent into totalitarianism spurred by the adoption of COVID-19-related public health restrictions. In the post, Prasad argues that in the context of the pandemic, democratic countries have become tolerant of government censorship and restrictions, which he says potentially paves the way to totalitarianism.

GSBS Dean, university “strenuously object” to Prasad’s statements

Outcry from faculty and students, including at least one student who voiced their objection to Prasad’s invitation directly to Jay, prompted the dean to share a statement with the PDD program that “emphatically [denounced]” Prasad’s past comments comparing pandemic restrictions to Nazi Germany.Later in the week, Jay would share the same statement with the entire graduate school. 

“The University and I emphatically denounce Dr. Prasad’s comments and reject any comparison of measures that have been put in place to protect people during the pandemic to actions taken by the Nazis,” Jay wrote in his statement. “While we strenuously object to Dr. Prasad’s opinions, we also recognize that we encourage dialogue and discussion at GSBS.”

Jay added that Prasad’s lecture, which PDD students were originally required to attend, would be made optional. 

Executive Director of Tufts Media Relations Patrick Collins joined Jay in disavowing Prasad’s past statements.

“Dr. Prasad’s appearance should not be interpreted as an endorsement of his views, which the dean and University object to strenuously,” Collins wrote in an email to the Daily.

In response to Jay, Prasad wrote his own statement defending his blog post and rejecting Jay’s suggestion that it was antisemitic. Brent Cochran, director of the cell, molecular and development biology program who invited Prasad to speak at the graduate seminar, shared Prasad’s rebuttal with the CMDB program over email.

“There is one line in the [October 2021 blog post] that notes how countries can shift from democracy to totalitarianism quickly and refers to one example in European history where this happened,” Prasad wrote in his statement. “There is nothing antisemitic about the essay.”

Prasad added that he believes his views on vaccines and public health restrictions have been misrepresented.

“In this world, you will meet other people with complicated views, who do not always tow the party line,” he wrote. “I love the covid vaccine, am a political liberal, hate school closure, and am opposed to booster mandates for young college students. Many people love, but some dislike, a part or all of those views. A few people outside Tufts construed a specific perspective about my blog post to discredit me.”

Cochran noted that Jay’s statement reached the entire GSBS community, while Prasad’s was only disseminated to the CMBD mailing list.

GSBS send conflicting messages on who could attend Prasad lecture

Prasad’s lecture, though billed as a graduate seminar for students in the PDD program, was originally open to the entire Tufts community and accessible via a Zoom link on the public GSBS website. One day before the lecture, however, Jay restricted attendance so that only members of the PDD program could attend. Less than two hours before the lecture began, Jay reversed that decision and sent out a new Zoom link to the entire GSBS mailing list. In the end, all GSBS affiliates were allowed to attend, but the event was closed to the broader Tufts community and the public.

Collins told the Daily that the seminar was never intended to be viewed publicly, so the dean's decision to limit attendance was not irregular.

“Today’s academic programming was part of a seminar series required of students and not intended as a public event,” Collins explained. “Invitations to hear guest speakers in the series are often extended to GSBS faculty and students and placed on the school’s calendar as a way to inform them.”

Emmanuel Pothos, director of the PDD program, said that the non-GSBS Tufts community is normally allowed to attend such seminars.

“All our Graduate Seminars are typically open to the entire Tufts community although most Seminars are attended by our students and GSBS faculty,” Pothos wrote in an email to the Daily.

Pothos objected to the dean’s original — and partially reversed — decision to limit attendance to Prasad’s talk.

“I was not involved in the decision to pull the Seminar from public announcements and I do not know the reason this happened,” Pothos wrote. “I believe an academic institution should espouse open dialogue and the free exchange of ideas.”

GSBS faculty and students react to Prasad’s invitation, dean’s statement

A GSBS PhD student who had voiced their concern to the dean about Prasad's invitation explained why they were dissatisfied with Jay’s statement. This student spoke to the Daily on the condition of anonymity, out of concern for their academic standing should their name be publicly associated with their communication with Jay on this topic.

“First of all, if you do believe that Dr. Prasad has been antisemitic — has said antisemitic things — then I think just going ahead with his invitation anyway is problematic,” the student said.“But also on the other hand, I don’t necessarily think that that’s the central issue here. What me and a bunch of other students are most concerned about is not that one particular comment but just a very strong history over the last year and a half of spreading misinformation, and cherry-picking data  and misrepresenting data about [COVID-19] and the [COVID-19] vaccines and masking and things like that, to weave a story of distrust in what experts and leaders were saying about the vaccine and about restrictions in general.”

Another GSBS PhD student — who also requested to be quoted anonymously for this story — told the Daily they asked a question during Prasad’s Feb. 17 lecture about how scientists should behave if they have a very different interpretation of a piece of medical literature from the mainstream scientific community. The question was meant to interrogate Prasad’s polarizing comments about COVID-19 restrictions, and the student said they were unsettled by Prasad’s response.

“If you have a differing view [than] what the medical community has … you should be trying to do research to show that what you think might be right is right, rather than going out and trying to sow distrust in the medical community, trying to undermine public health measures ... and trying to stop the nearly a million deaths that we have now,” the studentsaid. “There is no talk [from Prasad] of having any sort of humility or moral burden on yourself in those situations, just a very egotistical, dangerous view to hold and push onto other people.”

Prasad’s supporters at GSBS have been just as vocal as, if not more so than, his detractors.

“I think it was highly unfortunate that [Jay] would be accusing [Prasad] of antisemitism based on that particular blog post, which actually takes the opposite approach,” Cochran, the professor who invited Prasad to campus, told the Daily. “It's fine for [Jay] to have that position, but then to broadcast it widely and not afford Dr. Prasad to be able to give his response I just thought was outrageous.”

Cochran’s email containing Prasad’s response to Jay earned endorsements from other GSBS faculty members. One professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Pathobiology wrote, “I share Brent's view of this sad episode. This is not helpful in making Tufts an open-minded, democratic, tolerant venue!” 

Pothos agreed that he does not think Prasad’s blog post was antisemitic, although he said he would not have chosen the same comparison that Prasad used.