A ‘fake news’ boomerang

By Nick Hudson and Shayne Krige 

In the Daily Maverick article of 23 November, ‘Fake news and Misinformation kill: How can you trust what you are told about Covid-19’, the ‘Scientists Collective’ (‘SC’) make the obvious point that, in the Internet age, there is a lot of misinformation about.

PANDA’s formation was premised on this very idea. Since March, we have been building a global multi-disciplinary team of doctors, geneticists, virologists, actuaries, economists, statisticians, lawyers and other professionals, guided by some of the finest scientists in the world from Oxford, Stanford and Harvard Universities.

This team’s purpose has been to consider all of the science and to separate the good science from the bad and promote the former. Whilst we have much in common with the SC, there is one important difference in our approach. PANDA believes that the purpose of science is to inform, not to prescribe. The article by the SC drips with condescension.

Whereas PANDA believes that the people of South Africa will do the right thing if they are empowered with accurate information, the SC sees them as lemmings who will march to their deaths if they are exposed to ‘dangerous information’.

The SC is composed of academics primarily from medical disciplines. Three of these academics were members of the now-disbanded Ministerial Advisory Committee (‘MAC’), which was responsible for government policy to date, including the devastating lockdowns. Most of the others are employed in state-funded universities. We had read their unceremonious ejection from the MAC as suggesting that they had tried to ‘speak truth to power’ (as they put it) to counter the profound irrationality of government policy, but their Daily Maverick article would suggest otherwise.

Poor quality of the data

The SC endorses certain sources of information. At the top of the list is the South African government’s website (despite the poor quality of the data the government is producing) and they hold up as impeccable sources of science the US Centers for Disease Control (‘CDC’) and the World Health Organisation (‘WHO’).

They say, for example, that South Africa should count on 390 000 Covid deaths, which number they arrive at by multiplying the South African population by an infection fatality rate published by the CDC. The CDC – whose July 0.65% infection fatality rate they reference – in September updated its analysis to prove precisely the point these scientists are denying – that, for the majority of the population, Covid infection presents less risk than the flu (which has an IFR of between 0.1% and 0.2%).

Here is the updated CDC data:

AgeCDC IFR
0-19 years0.003%
20-49 years0.020%
50-69 years0.500%
70+ years5.400%

Unlike Covid-19, flu is just as dangerous for children as it is for adults. According to the CDC, therefore, flu is in fact more than 30 times more dangerous for a child than Covid-19 and 5 times more dangerous than Covid-19 for people under 49. This is one of the reasons why PANDA supports focused protection.

The other source the SC suggests you trust, the WHO, on 14 October published a paper co-authored by famous epidemiologist John loannidis, which estimated that the IFR of the virus is ‘less than 0.2%’.

WHO

On 5 October, the WHO made a statement in which it advised that 10% of the world’s population is estimated to have been infected with Covid-19 (7.8 billion people). At the time of that statement, around 1 200 000 people had ostensibly died of Covid-19, meaning that the WHO was working with an estimate of the IFR of 0.14%.

The SC makes many errors in arriving at their 390 000 number – they used an outdated IFR, from a country that has little in common with South Africa and they entirely neglected the profound age-based fatality rates of Covid-19.

But the most egregious error in their calculation is that they apply their mangled fatality rate to the entire population of South Africa, thus perpetuating the myth of universal susceptibility.

It has been manifestly clear since the Diamond Princess papers in March and the Swedish serology studies in May that universal susceptibility is not a thing. Decades of viral immunology taught us never to expect such a thing and dozens of scientific papers now delineate the precise mechanisms of widespread pre-existing immunity against Covid-19.

Perpetuates the myth

The SC also irresponsibly perpetuates the myth that excess deaths in South Africa are caused by Covid-19. There is no science proving this and the South African Medical Research Council does not claim the deaths as Covid deaths.

PANDA has produced a paper examining the oddities in the excess death reporting and examining that reporting in detail. These reports show that the excess deaths over and above official Covid deaths are more likely deaths caused by lockdown.

In the United States, where better-quality data is generated and the citizenry better protected against the effects of lockdown, research has shown ‘no evidence that COVID-19 created any excess deaths. Total death numbers are not above normal death numbers.’

If Covid-19 hasn’t caused any excess death in countries that have measured its impact, something else has likely caused the excess death in South Africa.

The SC also says that although they initially recommended against masks, they now do recommend them and, although they ‘welcome debate’, masks are now ‘not up for debate.’ Confused? This in the same week that the only randomized control trial ever done on masks and Covid-19, which found no significant effect from masking, has been hotly debated around the world. One would think that if the science was so universally settled, it would be a cake walk to present really compelling evidence on masks. Support for mask-wearing does not exist in any of the randomized control trials that have been conducted, nor do mask mandates demonstrate any benefit in the epidemic curves of any of the countries or regions that have adopted them.

Derisory

This source lists the top-10 mask-wearing countries on the planet, with Brazil, third best, and Sweden, third worst. If you look at these countries’ deaths per million, you will see no correlation. To contend that cloth mask-wearing is not a controversial practice and that this is beyond debate by reputable people is derisory, especially when such contention follows the point that debate ‘is not suppressed’.

Providing almost comical evidence for their contention, the authors link to three advisories, none of which actually reference any specific and robust research. One even references an anecdote involving a sample size of two — yes, two — hairdressers.

The WHO, whom SC recommends you trust, in their latest advice on the use of masks states that ‘(at) present, there is no direct evidence (from studies on COVID-19 and in healthy people in the community) on the effectiveness of universal masking of healthy people in the community to prevent infection with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19,’ and ‘(at) the present time, the widespread use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not yet supported by high quality or direct scientific evidence and there are potential benefits and harms to consider.’

As a result, the WHO only recommends the wearing of masks by the public in limited scenarios – notably by people who are symptomatic (i.e. obviously sick).

There are too many other factual errors in the SC article to cover here.

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