Grant Schofield: Why we need a Plan B

Grant Schofield, Professor of Public Health at Auckland University says we need to exit lockdown.

Yesterday morning my teenage boys Sam and Jackson were out riding their bikes. The police pulled them over to question them about what they were doing and where they were going. They explained they were cycling for exercise and staying local. That seemed OK, but they then were told that they were sweating and sweating was dangerous, because it could transmit the virus, so they should avoid that. Wrong of course, but wow, unprecedented police powers that are beyond what New Zealanders have ever seen outside of wartime.

All in the name of eradicating Covid-19. Unite against Covid-19!

So can we achieve this?

The simple answer is no. We could with better tools. But now no.

Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, recently said there is no plan B. The plan is the plan. In fact, there is strong social pressure to say nothing negative about the war effort. Negative is usually defined as anything off script, no matter how scientific. Look at my colleague Dr Simon Thornley in the last few days questioning the data being used to make our big decisions.

Back to eradication.

To eradicate this virus first, we need to know who has it, with certainty. At the most basic level that would mean that we can know if our elimination has worked. It also allows us to quarantine those who do have it, including all the asymptomatic, so they can’t unknowingly infect others. We would also be able to send those infected and now immune back out into the world.

To know these numbers we need a near-perfect test. One which correctly identifies all those who are infected, or not infected. Any false negatives, those who in reality are sick, but are tested and released as fine, would be particularly problematic. You’d also want to test on a scale with large numbers randomly across the population. That’s the only way you can confidently rule out the existence of the virus.

How does our testing go under this scientific scrutiny?

The best available test is Real Time PCR. A sequence of biochemistry allows for the detection of virus RNA. If you have these you almost certainly have Covid-19. The problem is that a negative test doesn’t mean you don’t have it. In fact, there are limited data on the accuracy (or sensitivity) of PCR for this virus. In China, a small number of patients with clinically compatible illness were tested using PCR and it correctly identified as many as 72 percent and as few as 32 percent and was highly variable in repeat tests. For similar viral testing sensitivity runs at 50-70 percent correct positives.

What is most important is that this means between 30-50 percent of those tested are released back into the community when they are in reality infected.

This is made worse because mostly we just test those with obvious symptoms. It means we won’t catch any of those without symptoms – those we most need to catch. It’s likely we have large numbers of asymptomatic people already in the community unintentionally infecting many others. Data from Iceland show that this might be as high as 50 percent of cases.

Second, we haven’t and don’t have the capacity to do the accurate level of massive population testing we need to. Simple as that.

Third, even if the above were both 100 percent, we cannot tell if you have already been infected and recovered. We need antibody testing to become available for this to be known. This hopefully comes to NZ soon. Eventually it will and we will really know the true numbers of infections. This means we can calculate the all-important “case fatality rate” which is the key number to decode how to react to a pandemic. We really must know how lethal this virus is, and for who, compared to something we already know like the seasonal flu.

To be clear, we don’t know this number with any certainty, and the modelling used to predict deaths, and therefore government responses, depends on this as yet uncertain number. The WHO’s original estimate was 3.4 percent, with the latest estimates looking closer to 0.3 percent and has usually come down further with more accurate measurement in other pandemics. The figures are still very uncertain. Seasonal flu has a case fatality rate of 0.1 percent.

I got most interested in this three weeks ago when I became sick with a sore throat, swollen glands, which eventually changed to a dry cough, difficulty breathing especially at night time, and then a lung infection. Repeated calls to the Healthline and my doctor resulted in vague advice not to worry and “drink more fluids”. Everyone in my house ended up with symptoms, all less severe than me. This really piqued my interest in how we were missing the boat. I had travelled on aircraft and mixed with people from overseas (at Ironman NZ in Taupo). Yet, I was outside of scope for being tested.

Did I, and my family, have Covid-19? I don’t know, and that’s the point.

We were originally on a plan to “flatten the curve”. This means reduce the speed of infection, also called mitigation. This seems prudent given we know we have a potentially lethal virus circulating in our community, with no easy way to accurately detect it. As well, there are probably large numbers of asymptomatic people spreading. Mitigation aims to lessen the potential high demands on the health system so we can give those who need it the best quality of care.

To me, it seems most likely that we cannot contain this because we can’t measure it.

Yet, somewhere in the last week the strategy changed to an eradication policy. Even if full eradication isn’t the goal, if it’s just “seriously flattening the curve” that requires much wider, more accurate surveillance and then quarantine than we have.

Our current strategy has so many questions, but very few answers.

What’s the exit strategy for this eradication policy? When do we go back to work, how do we decide with reliable data, and what then? What do we do if we get more infections again? Do we go back to lockdown? What if we are not successful?

Do we just “try harder” and lock down more? When do we decide to give up and try something else? How much harm is done to health from economic collapse and poverty will we get? How compliant will New Zealanders be in the longer-term? Even a small amount of civil disobedience is essentially unenforceable?

In the end, the goal in public health is to get the best possible outcomes, for the least possible harm, with the tools and resources we have available now. So as more and more data emerge, and we see where we are at we must be willing and able to change our mind, and move in ways that maximise the best health outcomes and the least harms.

Given we currently have no way of identifying accurately enough who has this virus, especially asymptomatic positives, then mitigation is the most logical pathway, especially given the unknown and potentially large harms of extended lockdown. Let’s explore our Plan B. Now is good.

“Loxit”: we need debate and open minds on how to exit lockdown

March 22: Aaron Ginn wrote a long, charts-and-statistics-filled blog post at Medium arguing that the available public health data shows that COVID-19 is less easily transmitted, less fatal, and more likely to fade away with the hot weather than the conventional wisdom would have you believe. Medium deleted the post, which is now hosted at ZeroHedge. Deleting arguments like Ginn’s is a bad and dangerous way to handle the still-roiling debate over what governments and society should do in order to react to the disease.


How long can the covid fight be sustained

New York Times opinion piece on 24 March weighs up pros and cons of the fight against Covid19.

As the country tallies up the economic cost of its first week of fighting the coronavirus pandemic — potentially millions of job losses, a plunging stock market and apprehensions of another Great Depression — an unspeakable thought has become a whisper, and the whisper an all-caps tweet: What if we just didn’t?

Yale Prof produces non-lockdown COVID19 protection system

A risk and vulnerability chart by David L. Katz, founding director (1998-2019) of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, shows how a non-lockdown system would protect vulnerable people from Covid19.

Scientists halve WHO mortality estimate

A study, led by Professor Joseph Wu of the University of Hong Kong, and colleagues at Harvard University analysed published data on 425 early confirmed cases and 41 fataliites in Wuhan.

They found that overall, the proportion of patients that died was 1.4 per cent 

The World Health Organization said in early March the death rate was 3.4 per cent.

Scientists confirm low mortality rate

A scientific paper by experts in Medicine, Epidemiology and Statistics, estimates actual death rate 0.04%-0.12%

A paper, Early epidemiological assessment of the transmission 1 potential and virulence of coronavirus disease 2019 2 (COVID-19) in Wuhan City: China, January-February, 2020, found a death rate much lower than estimated by the WHO when New Zealand considered lockdown.

We also found that 50 most recent crude infection fatality ratio (IFR) and time–delay adjusted IFR is estimated 51 to be 0.04% (95% CrI: 0.03%–0.06%) and 0.12% (95%CrI: 0.08–0.17%), which is 52 several orders of magnitude smaller than the crude CFR estimated at 4.19%.

The paper was published by Kenji Mizumoto, Katsushi Kagaya, and Gerardo Chowell.

Dr. Mizumoto is a Professor at the Graduate School of Advanced Integrated Studies in Human Survivability, Kyoto 7 University Yoshida–Nakaadachi–cho, in Sakyo–ku, Kyoto, Japan/

Drs. Mizumoto and Kagaya, are also researchers at the Hakubi Center for Advanced Research, Kyoto University, Yoshidahonmachi, in Sakyo–ku,Kyoto, Japan.

Drs. Mizumoto and Chowell teach at the Department of Population Health Sciences, School of Public Health, Georgia State 11 University, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.

Dr. Chowell is a researcher at Seto Marine Biological Laboratory, Field Science, Education and Reseach Center, 13 Kyoto University,  in Shirahama–cho, Nishimuro–gun, Wakayama, Japan.


Prolonged lockdown dangerous

A prolonged lockdown will cause economic issues that lead to broader, indirect problems for our health and wellbeing, according to Vice Chancellor of Victoria University, Professor Grant Guilford.

Ioannidis says emerging data suggest COVID19 doesn’t warrant extreme reaction
April 3. John Ioannidis explains that emerging data on COVID-19 suggests the disease does not warrant the extreme Western response.

Ioannidis: Not enough data for big decisions
March 17: John P.A. Ioannidis, professor of medicine, epidemiology, and population health, at Stanford University School of Medicine, says the public health response could be a fiasco because big decisions are being made without enough data.