By Peter Andrews, Irish science journalist and writer based in London. He has a background in the life sciences, and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in genetics.
With each passing day, we learn more about the coronavirus. And some studies suggest that the virus’s bark may be worse than its bite. Now that the initial panic is over, maybe it’s time to reappraise lockdown plans.
A recent Stanford University study found the Covid-19 infection rate is probably between 50 and 85 times higher than official figures had previously indicated. The study looked for antibodies in 3,330 people in Santa Clara County. Antibodies develop in the blood after someone has been infected with the coronavirus and cleared it. And a much greater proportion of Santa Clarans had them than official figures had at that point suggested.
If the findings — which have yet to be peer reviewed — are sound, then it takes yet another thick slice off the mortality rate of Covid-19. It would now be something under 0.14 percent, putting it on a par with, or even lower than, the seasonal flu. Hence the good news.
Larger scale studies are underway, but research of this nature should not wash over the coronavirus discussion. It should immediately be brought to the attention of all top public health officials and epidemiologists advising governments on the best course of action. We may be due for a course correction.
A new phase of the crisis
Dr John Lee, a British retired consultant pathologist, has been doggedly making the point that we simply do not know very much about the coronavirus. “An awful lot of what’s been presented as facts … is actually hypothesis, supposition and assumption … that’s come out of models about how the virus might behave,” he said on a recent television appearance. And since these models are based on flawed testing protocols and hugely variable data processing from different countries, politicians should not pretend to be on the side of science when sermonising to their nations.
“When the facts change, I change my mind,’’ as the great economist John Maynard Keynes put it. Those were words to live by. Politicians should not feel chained to one course of action for fear that deviating from it would embarrass them—this would be to cut off their nose to spite their face. The stakes are too high now to put political capital ahead of national interests.
We have entered a second stage of the virus crisis. The first stage was a scramble to act in the face of an invisible enemy, whose potential for harm seemed almost unlimited. Governments everywhere felt that they had no choice but to hit the big red button, and like a chain of falling dominoes one after another took unprecedented lockdown measures from around the middle of March.
But now things have stabilized in much of the world, and are clearly on the downswing in badly-hit places like Italy, Spain, China and Australia. In this calm after the storm, politicians and the public health experts advising governments should take the opportunity to re-examine the evidence and decide a new, and more targeted, course of action for the future.