As a scientist I am trained to think critically, to evaluate evidence, and ask questions – lots and lots of questions. That’s my job. In March 2020 the World Health Organization predicted that 3.6% of those infected with COVID-19 would die. New Zealand’s own modelling predicted 80,000 Kiwis would die. These numbers seemed extraordinary to me. If they were accurate the impact of COVID-19 would be enormous. But, as I delved deeper, I began to question the accuracy of the predictions. At the time, the infection fatality rate was calculated as the number of COVID-19 deaths divided by the number of confirmed infections. As a scientist, that seemed overly simplistic. Surely many more people would have caught COVID-19 than had been officially tested? If correct, that would lower the predicted fatality rate dramatically. So I began to do what I’m trained to do: think critically, evaluate evidence and ask questions.
What I found was analysis and perspectives I had not been exposed to in New Zealand. John Ioannidis, Professor at Stanford University, and one of the world’s leading physician-scientists, was particularly vocal. The data collected on how many people had been infected (and used to model the fatality rate) were “utterly unreliable”. Not only was there no reliable evidence for “draconian countermeasures” like lockdowns, but if enacted, the measures would themselves lead to significant long-term social and health harm. His concerns were echoed by Sucharit Bhakdi (Professor Emeritus, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany) as well as many other eminent epidemiologists around the world. Why had I not heard these different arguments and perspectives in New Zealand? Where was the balanced debate?
On 31 March Dr Simon Thornley, an epidemiologist at the University of Auckland, published an article entitled “Do the consequences of this lockdown really match the threat?” His questions and concerns about the data resonated with me. It turned out I wasn’t alone. Simon received emails from across New Zealand with similar and related concerns. What impact would the lockdown have on mental health, rates of suicide, long-term unemployment, and poverty? What were the legal and ethical ramifications? The list of questions went on.
Last week our cross-disciplinary group of academics published COVID Plan B. Our aim is to get those different arguments and perspectives heard, expand debate and provide a pathway out of lockdown. We want to help New Zealand navigate its way through this pandemic in a way that mitigates its impact on all kiwis. But, while we have received considerable positive support from concerned members of the public, we have also received criticism because of our desire to widen the debate. We have been criticised, for example, for not focusing enough on the elderly or vulnerable. You may wish to read point’s 2 and 4 of Plan B to learn otherwise. To offer a different perspective is apparently now to be ‘contrarians’: people to be dismissed as outside the scientific consensus. I assume, by association, that Professor Ioannidis and those many eminent epidemiologist are also ‘contrarians’? As Michael Crichton (MD Harvard and author) says…“the work of science has nothing to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics… invoked only in situations where the science is not solid enough”. Some commentators and scientists have even suggested that we should remain silent and toe the line. This attempt to stifle debate and marginalise those who offer a different perspective on one of the most important issues of our time is deeply worrying and has more in common with political activism than science.
We must never stop interrogating and adapting our COVID-19 strategy. We should, at all times, be open to new analysis, different perspectives and vigorous debate, however uncomfortable that makes us. Different perspectives should be welcomed, not castigated. There can be few decisions in history that would not have benefitted from different perspectives and wider input. No one is well-served by groupthink. As Galileo said “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”
Dr Michael Jackson is a postdoctoral research at Victoria University of Wellington.