The prescribed response to every scientific report has always been to ask for the proof, doubt every finding, and question every conclusion. Science would not advance if agreement were won by force or reputation, rather than by evidence. We expect nothing less from the scientific community regarding this new virus that has led governments to do the unprecedented.
I have previously argued in this column that, in the face of a public health emergency such as a viral outbreak, politicians need to listen and yield space to medical scientists, infectious disease specialists, and epidemiologists. But I also expect opposing views about the virus and the disease it causes to be freely aired, and the unresolved questions to be acknowledged.
I am sure the scientific debate on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 continues in our own scientific community. But I get the uneasy feeling that the discussion is so closely guarded that we rarely, if at all, get to hear views that depart from the pronouncements of public health authorities, who, for the most part, appear to take their cues from the World Health Organization.
Elsewhere, skeptical views are being aired and given space in nonmainstream publications. They raise doubts not only about the current state of what we know about this virus, but also about the rationale for the restrictive measures that have been imposed on society in the name of public health.
Here, I share a couple of such dissenting voices from the margins—not to endorse them (for I am neither a biologist nor an infectious disease specialist), but to sharpen our understanding of a phenomenon that has impacted our collective lives like no other catastrophe in our lifetime.
My source is the eponymous website “Off-Guardian,” an internet portal that bills itself as a “home for comment and the facts you no longer find in the mainstream media.” Satisfied that this is not one of those generators of conspiracy theories that have swirled around the novel coronavirus, I turned to the links to the cited articles and videos in which these views originally appeared.
I will focus on just two topics, namely:
- About the true number of infections and deaths. As in many other previous coronavirus outbreaks, there is growing agreement that one can be infected with SARS-CoV-2 and yet show no symptoms. The real number of infections out there could thus be larger than the number of cases confirmed by testing. Question: Can we, this early, say that SARS-CoV-2 is far more lethal than the seasonal respiratory viruses that kill about 2.6 million people worldwide every year?
Dr. Pietro Vernazza, a Swiss infectious disease specialist at the Cantonal Hospital St. Gallen, has this to say: “We have reliable figures from Italy and a work by epidemiologists, which has been published in the journal Science which examined the spread in China. [A]round 85 percent of all infections have occurred without anyone noticing the infection; 90 percent of the deceased patients are verifiably over 70 years old, and 50 percent of these [were] over 80 years.”
Dr. John Ioannidis, professor of Medicine, Health Research and Policy at Stanford University, questions the bias in the testing for the new coronavirus. He says: “Patients who have been tested for SARS-CoV-2 are disproportionately those with severe symptoms and bad outcomes. As most health systems have limited testing capacity, selection bias may even worsen in the near future.” He says that the only situation in which an entire isolated population was mass-tested was the Diamond Princess cruise ship. “The case fatality rate there was 1.0 percent, but this was a largely elderly population, in which the death rate from COVID-19 is much higher.”
It has also been observed that COVID-19 could coexist in the same patient with other infectious conditions like bacterial pneumonia and Influenza B. There is therefore a difference between death “from” COVID-19 and death “with” COVID-19. Question: Is it possible that a significant number of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 are actually caused by other diseases?
Dr. Ioannidis’ answer is fascinating: “If we had not known about a new virus out there, and had not checked individuals with PCR tests, the number of total deaths due to ‘influenza-like illness’ would not seem unusual this year.”
- About the proportionality of the response to this pandemic. The main question that begs to be asked is: How many of the draconian measures, which are quickly becoming the norm, are justified?
“I worry about the message to the public, about the fear of coming into contact with people, being in the same space as people, shaking their hands, having meetings with people,” says Dr. Joel Kettner, former chief public health officer of Manitoba Province in Canada.
Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center agrees: “I am deeply concerned that the social, economic, and public health consequences of this near-total meltdown of normal life—schools and businesses closed, gatherings banned—will be long-lasting and calamitous, possibly graver than the direct toll of the virus itself.”
And lastly, Dr. Peter Goetzsche of the University of Copenhagen sounds this warning: “Our main problem is that no one will ever get in trouble for measures that are too draconian. They will only get in trouble if they do too little.” I am not familiar with the work of any of these people, but the points they raise seem, to me, reasonable. We should keep observing, asking questions, and thinking of alternatives.