We have recently been told that “Life’s not going to go back to 2019 any time soon.” and that we need at least 83% of us vaccinated for measures such as lockdowns and quarantines to be a thing of the past. Other experts said these estimates were “plausible”. In fact, the figure might be as high as 97%. Before we abandon any dream of returning to normal, let us consider the broader issue of how much certainty we can place in these pronouncements, and whether we should now be putting our skeptical spectacles on.
These days it is easy to live under the illusion that specialists in any field have it all together. The other day my oven started burning food that I thought was put in to keep warm. I assumed the thermostat was broken, I ordered and installed another, but the problem persisted. I couldn’t work out what was wrong. I finally gave up and called a very good appliance repairer, who within ten minutes had found the short and the oven now works almost as good as new. The same generally happens when I bring my car in for a service. Whatever wasn’t working, now is and the problem is solved. Even I can now repair a computer that gives me the blue screen of death and fails to boot. The Windows recovery USB is a beautiful thing and is worth looking-up if you haven’t discovered it yet.
All of this creates the false impression that we live in a world of certainty and that experts can solve any problem. This assumption is safe when it comes to human designed machines and usually there is either an expert somewhere or a youtube™ video ready to give you advice about how to fix something that is broken. Such advice is often built on a profound and subtle understanding of how a machine normally works, how to distinguish normal from abnormal behaviour, and replace the faulty part in question.
The same is not true, however, for my chosen specialty. Epidemiology is fraught with uncertainty as we often have competing information from different areas and we need to decide which evidence is most important and most reliable. About covid, for example, we have seen this in action. We are still told to wear masks on public transport in New Zealand. Mask proponents will use this observational study to justify their use to prevent infection, whereas people opposed to their use may point to trials such as this one. Now both parties have evidence to fall back on and justify their viewpoints. The question is then now “which evidence is superior?” Conventionally, trials, such as the DANMASK one is generally considered better evidence than observational ones, since all other differences, other than the one under study (masks or no masks) are cancelled out by design. Instead, observational studies cancel out other factors through statistical means, which are clunky and we can only account for what we know, whereas the trial rather miraculously accounts for what we don’t know.
This is all old news. Science writer Gary Taubes pointed to this many years ago in a seminal article, asking the question of whether epidemiology had faced its limits? Taubes made the relatively straightforward observation that studies purporting to answer the same question in epidemiology often came to diametrically opposed conclusions, so it was hard to know where the true answer lay. Examples in the recent past include the questioning of the belief that saturated fat is the cause of heart disease. This has been dogma for many years, and now the lack of statistical evidence in support of the hypothesis is starting to more than raise eyebrows. Sugar intake, traditionally thought to be healthy, is now considered a prime suspect, taking the place of the formerly guilty animal fat.
This should now give us pause for thought as the country is given no letup in the torrent of bad news that seems to stream from authority on the covid-19 path. Although, I acknowledge there are different views of covid-19 and those who think it is terrible will point to scenes of overwhelmed hospitals in India and other places, there are also many reasons to be optimistic. We now have much data about the fatality ratio of the virus, and it is now in the region of 0.15%, not far off seasonal influenza (0.1%). The fear created by the spread of the latest ‘delta variant’ shows a case-fatality of only 0.1% in UK data. This is even with systematic exaggeration of death reporting which we are now only just appreciating. Deaths rates from covid-19 have dropped precipitously in many hospitals.
In perhaps the most sinister twist, we have our medical council stating that we may only discuss evidence-based information about the COVID-19 vaccine if it aligns with government issued information, implying that any other information is anti-vaccine and not acceptable. This is despite new information leading to 18 countries withdrawing the AstraZeneca vaccine in order to protect their populations. The assertion that we are being told the “Whole Truth” is starting to now feel rather hollow. The recent case-series of cases of myocarditis and the rapid increase in reports of post-vaccine death in the US demands a cautious approach.
Te Pūnaha Matatini’s latest headline grabbing piece is based on another complex model that paints us all in a corner until we are all vaccinated. Even children, who have almost zero risk from covid-19 are targeted for the jab. Reading the document, I can’t help but yawn. The underlying assumptions are that we have no background immunity, it is only achieved through either infection or vaccination. It is also clear that the only goal is to defeat covid-19. Nothing else matters. There is not one mention of vaccine adverse effects – these are of no interest on the road to zero covid. It is almost as if this group is living in a parallel universe where the only concern is defeating the virus. This group who gave us visions of mass death that prompted lockdowns does not discuss the issue of pre-existing immunity from other coronaviruses that provide protection to SARS-CoV-2. Other modelers are drawing attention to this as a major reason for exaggerated death estimates early in the covid-19 saga.
The importance of the defeating covid-19 must be balanced against the growing evidence of harm from the vaccine and from restrictive measures. It is almost as if reports of vaccine harm don’t exist to the mathematical modellers. Physicians calling for the withdrawal of the vaccine stating there is “more than enough evidence on the Yellow Card system [UK vaccine side effects reporting system] to declare the COVID-19 vaccines unsafe for use in humans” must be deluded. The rate of 1/50,000 covid-19 vaccinees dying and the 1/70 having adverse effects reported after the vaccine must simply be co-incidence. These admonitions along with the recent finding of strong cross-reactive immunity to SARS-CoV-2 in children hasn’t seemed to have dampened the Ministry of Health’s enthusiasm to vaccinate this age group.
In a recent telephone call from Professor Michael Baker, I was told that the average number of years of life lost from covid-19 was sixteen. I asked him what the average age of death from covid-19 was in this country? He couldn’t tell me. He asked me what that I thought that figure was. I responded that it was similar to our life expectancy: about 82 years. The same is true overseas. The combination of an average of 16 years of life lost and average age of death from covid-19 logically means somehow the virus is targeting people who would have otherwise lived to 98 years. This seemed implausible to me. Professor Baker agreed with me, however, Nevertheless, one week later he made the same claims about average life years lost. During that lecture he dismissed everything I’d said during the covid-19 saga as “misinformation” and accused me of “cherry picking” data. I had the same conversation with a stuff.co.nz reporter about one week later. Whatever else covid-19 is doing, we should not simply assume it be prioritised above all other concerns. We need to face the vaccine and the virus with our eyes open. From these data, it is not overall reducing our life expectancy.
It is a positive sign that Singapore, UK, and now Australia have recently announced that they have abandoned ‘zero covid’ as unsustainable, in favour of living with the virus and eventually returning to normality, albeit with vaccination. We urgently need to remember that the pretense of ‘one source of truth’ is anti-scientific, and that good science demands freedom to raise and debate uncomfortable evidence.