NZ academics argue over Covid-19

There are a number of contentious aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic, in particular how stringent restrictions should be on travel and on home isolation, and the economic management and effects. There is a lot to debate.

Some New Zealand academics have been doing their debating in public, which is generally a good thing, these are important issues that need to be openly discussed.

Newsroom: Navigating a public spat between scientists

A scientific spat over Covid-19 reached peak contrarian yesterday thanks to the country’s contrarian-in-chief, Mike Hosking.

Following a Stuff opinion piece that said “We don’t want to squash a flea with a sledgehammer and bring the house down”, University of Auckland senior lecturer and epidemiologist Simon Thornley explained his views on Newstalk ZB.

He told broadcaster Hosking overall mortality figures in heavily affected countries haven’t gone up, concluding: “These deaths are occurring in people who are running out of time.”

“Exactly,” one-man-reckon-machine Hosking responded. “They were going to die anyway and something was going to get them. It just happens, now, to have been this. Or maybe it wasn’t. Or maybe this exacerbated it. Or maybe this complicated it.”

(Or maybe the fact these people were going to die “anyway”, of something, sometime, is a statistical irrelevance in a society that cares about preserving life and protecting the public from preventable causes of death.)

Thornley’s column angered arguably our country’s most prominent scientist, Siouxsie Wiles, who tweeted on Tuesday: “For anyone who comes across the opinion piece of an epidemiologist suggesting lockdown is like using a sledgehammer to hit a flea: he studies diet not infectious diseases. Don’t listen to his reckons.”

She later apologised for making it personal, albeit without naming Thornley. Not before Auckland University of Technology Professor of Public Health Grant Schofield jumped in to back Thornley. Schofield, too, made it personal.

Accusing someone of being out of their scientific “lane” without discussing data wasn’t acceptable, he said on Twitter, adding: “Some would criticise you a microbiologist in public health.”

Wiles tells Newsroom it’s fair to question her credentials. “But I am doing my best to stay on top of the literature, which it would appear others are not. And have also changed my position as the evidence has changed and explained why.”

She says her frustration was sparked by “a piece that used old data disingenuously to strongly push a message that has the potential to lead to people’s deaths by undermining the lockdown”.

Thornley, meanwhile, says science, at its heart, is about open and honest debate. “That is what I intended to bring to this discussion, which, I believe, has been very one-sided.”

Schofield maintains he’s all for the lockdown but he’s also for robust, and civil, scientific debate. He was disappointed that Wiles used her authority not for scientific argument but to dismiss science she didn’t agree with.

“There is considerable uncertainty,” Schofield says. “[Thornley] is the single smartest guy I know, and he does have some challenging and possibly inconvenient truths about the uncertainty.”

The article then goes on to ‘weigh the evidence’ in some detail.

One aspect of Thornley’s article was quite questionable due to being too soon to call about the far more relaxed approach that Sweden had taken – see Sweden’s different Covid strategy looks shaky.

After making his “squash a flea with a sledgehammer” comment, he wrote in his Stuff story that he believed other countries, such as Sweden, are steering a more “sensible course”. He linked to a Guardian article, which mentions schools, kindergartens, bars, restaurants, ski resorts, sports clubs, and hairdressers remain open, unlike in neighbouring Denmark and Norway.

The Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, has said coping with Covid-19 is about commonsense behaviour. “We all, as individuals, have to take responsibility. We can’t legislate and ban everything,” That country’s Public Health Agency’s position has been criticised in a joint letter from 2000 Swedish university researchers.

On Monday, in another Guardian article, Professor Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér, a virus immunology researcher at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, said: “We’re not testing enough, we’re not tracking, we’re not isolating enough – we have let the virus loose.” She concluded: “They are leading us to catastrophe.”

Comparing Sweden, Denmark, and Norway on coronavirus counter worldometers.com shows a concerning trend. Norway (4651) has more confirmed cases than Sweden (4435), but fewer deaths – 39 versus 180. Seventy of those Swedish deaths were reported on March 30 and 31. Denmark, meanwhile, has 90 deaths but far fewer cases than Sweden, at 2860.

Current numbers on those countries:

  • Sweden 282 deaths, 28 per million (population)
  • Denmark 123 deaths, 21 per million
  • Norway 50 deaths, 9 per million

Note that these are just snapshots and can be misleading as different countries are at different stages on Covid spread and effect.

Sweden was recently looking relatively good but over the last few days has surged as the curves (cases and deaths) swing upwards – see https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/sweden/

It will actually be months before we can really compare countries and try to see what approaches were most successful at minimising health issues and deaths as well as minimising the economic effects.

More from Newsroom: Lockdowns spark bad faith backlash

No one was more surprised to see that Neil Ferguson, the author of a groundbreaking paper on how to stop Covid-19, had walked back his dire projections on the anticipated death toll of the virus than Ferguson himself.

The Imperial College London academic, whose paper changed government policy towards Covid-19 in nations worldwide – including New Zealand – told a British parliamentary committee that, with the advent of the United Kingdom’s lockdown, he expected the death toll to be in the range of 20,000.

Critics then leapt on this statement, arguing that because Ferguson had previously predicted a death toll of 250,000 for the UK, he had now substantially walked back his estimates. Former New York Times journalist Alex Berenson, recently famous for publishing a book on cannabis and violence that was widely-panned as inaccurate, took to Twitter to make this argument.

It then went viral on right-wing websites like the Daily Wire and the Washington Times, the first of which has substantially edited its article in the face of fact-checking from more authoritative sources.

As the Financial Times explains, Ferguson didn’t revise his prediction at all – in fact, the 20,000 deaths figure was directly taken from his original report. This was the estimated toll if the United Kingdom engaged in the strict suppression measures – closing schools and most workplaces – that it ultimately has, whereas 250,000 deaths were anticipated if the UK took no action whatsoever.

Misinformation circulated online is a major problem generally, especially when it influences presidents.

In the United States, an article by highly-cited libertarian legal scholar and climate change denier Richard Epstein has buoyed an anti-lockdown faction within the White House. The March 16 article, titled “Coronavirus Perspective”, sought to contextualise what Epstein saw as a massive overreaction to Covid-19, which he thought would only kill 500 Americans.

Epstein now says he made a minor error while calculating this figure and has offered 5,000 as the final death toll. As of Thursday morning in New Zealand, more than 4,700 Americans have been killed by the virus and there are no signs of this slowing. Even Donald Trump now admits a far higher toll is likely – his goal is to limit deaths to 100,000, although they could rise as high as 240,000.

“Coronavirus Perspective” emboldened the anti-lockdown faction in Trump’s inner circle and lead to musings from Trump of lifting mitigation and lockdown measures by Easter. “We’re opening up this incredible country, because we have to do that. I would love to have it open by Easter,” Trump said on March 24, as the US death toll hit 706.

Evidently, more rational heads within the administration have managed to steer Trump back towards a strategy that avoided opening up the President to accusations of leading a death cult, but Epstein still took the time to defend his work in a March 30 interview with The New Yorker‘s Isaac Chotiner.

In defending his sloppy math, Epstein turned to bunk science, saying there are multiple strains of the virus – a stronger one that kills more people and a weaker one that is less lethal. Epstein believes, astoundingly, that the virus will also evolve to become weaker over time and falsely claimed the same occurred with AIDS, SARS and Ebola. Chotiner ended up having to turn to experts to fact-check Epstein in the text of the interview, lest he accidentally distribute fake news to all his readers.

Trump seems to have swung in behind the conventional concerns and actions over Covid.


I’m still very dubious about even best case projections because they still mention some very big numbers – Trump has accepted ‘successful’ death limitation in the US to a 100,000-220,000 range.

Even the worst hit countries (based on published data , China numbers in particular have to be questioned) are well below projections, Italy currently 13,155 deaths (yesterday +727 but already 760 today) and Spain 9,312 (yesterday +923, 709 so far today).

The UK curve is starting to look bad. The currently have ‘just’ 2,921 deaths, but were up 563 yesterday and have already reached that today (GMT so six hours to go).

Currently there are ‘just’ 5,600 deaths in the US. But deaths have recently surged, currently to about 1,000 a day.

But, if there is a widespread staggered hit from Covid around the US, that death rate over 100 days comes to 100,000 so that number doesn’t look out of reasonable expectations. And the daily death rate could easily climb quite a bit higher before it peaks and comes back down.

And it should be remember if lockdowns are relaxed there’s a high chance (it’s expected) that there will be ongoing surges in infections and deaths for many months, until vaccines become available – if effective vaccines are developed.

There’s a lot for academics and the rest of us to discuss and debate for some time on this.