New virus strain not “more deadly”

New virus strain not “more deadly”

In December Boris Johnson announced to UK citizens that a new strain of the Sars-Cov2 virus – B1.1.7 or the “kent” strain – was 70% more infectious and probably more deadly. His Government, including health bureaucrats, used this to justify more lockdowns.

Around the world nations responded fearfully, in an echo of the first wave of border closures, lockdowns and infection-control responses that followed China’s dramatic actions in Wuhan.

In New Zealand the Government took special measures to isolate returning citizens coming from the UK. The media keep referring to the strain as more dangerous.

Johnson had noted “considerable uncertainty” about the December prediction, but to most people, including him, the 70% estimate outweighed the uncertainty. Notes of uncertainty were swamped by fear generated when the UK’s Health minister said the new strain was “out of control”.  Johnson said of the 70% transmissibility number: “it’s the best that we have at the moment and we have to act on information as we have it, because this is now spreading very fast.”

By 22 Jan, the UK Government doubled-down on its prediction, claiming that it was 30% more deadly. To be fair, some media reporting at the time noted a lack of certainty in the data, but went ahead and reported the claims anyway. In the UK a row quickly broke out when it was admitted that the scientists were not sure about the 30% more deadly number. One advisor to the Government admitted it was still not a serious disease for most people. Despite this, most reports reaching the public, especially outside of the UK – such as this in NZ – made no mention of the debate over the 30% claim.

The alarmist reporting was made possible because credible people repeated it. The almost iconic Dr Anthony Fauci, the US chief health officer, said the strain was 30% more deadly. The CDC warned it’s increased contagiousness meant it would become the dominant strain in the US.

Here in NZ Nick Wilson claims the strain meant we are in “the most dangerous period” and urged limits to number of people returning from the UK or close to the UK completely.  There is no mention of the lack of certainty.

This is important because it was all wrong.

A UK study in January found ‘some evidence’ for increased transmission but “we found no evidence for changes in reported symptoms, disease severity and disease duration associated with B.1.1.7. We found a likely reinfection rate of around 0.7% (95% CI 0.6-0.8), but no evidence that this was higher compared to older strains”.

In fairness we should note that the study found that the increase in the R rate subsequently fell in lockdown. (That’s interesting and deserves follow-up because there’s no other causal evidence that lockdowns do this).

But the results of that study were not surprising. There were indications early on that this strain was not significantly more transmissable or deadly.

The advice Johnson quoted in December was challenged by Carl Heneghan and others, although media coverage at the time was not widespread.

Johnson’s subsequent ‘30% more deadly’ claim in January was far more widely challenged and revealed to have less than a 50% probability.

Studies and data analysis in mid and late December were already clear that although it might be slightly more infectious, it was not more dangerous – the mode of transmission was no different and symptoms were similar – and mutations were hardly surprising nor generally much cause for special alarm.

A central problem was terminology. The most problematic phrase was “more deadly”. It was a technically accurate way of phrasing the idea that if the strain was more infectious, it would reach more people and thus kill more. Remember that it now appears to be only marginally more transmissable than earlier strains, not the 70% Johnson and his health officials claimed (and that’s from studies looking at its spread, not its mode of action).

The failure of the transmission data to back up the predicted spread could explain why the officials switched to a different way of saying the same thing: not that it was more transmissable but that that is was more deadly (because the same disease reached more people).

This implies that if you got the strain, you were more likely to die. But you aren’t – your chances are just the same as with other strains: 0.7%.

The choice of the word deadly is deliberate; technically correct across a population even if the difference is not much, while absolutely not correct for an individual. The phrase creates personal fear, and that destabilises the public’s ability to debate and respond cohesively to extreme measures.

The choice of politicians and many of the world’s senior health personalities to use the ‘more deadly’ phrase signals they are interested in the outcome, not accuracy. The misuse of the word and duplicity of intent was suggested by some scientists.

The development of awareness and response to the UK strain is symptomatic of democratic Government management of the virus from the start in early 2020. Their inability to present a fair and dispassionate assessment makes them unreliable sources and decision-makers. As Prof Carl Heneghan said in December, democratic nations should not be in a situation where Government data is unquantifiable”. That is bad for science, public policy, and democracy.