We kick off Round One of The Great VIRAL Debate, following on from Opening Statements. Our participants, Drs Anderson and Rancourt, will now take turns responding to one another. Dr Piers Robinson is our chair. Off-Guardian is your host. The proposition under debate is:

SARS-COV-2 merits suppression measures in order to combat the virus rather than the herd/community immunity approach

Dr Anderson, arguing for the proposition. He’s responding to Dr Rancourt’s opening statement and first response:

In response to the opening statement and first response by Denis, let me first list the matters on which I agree.

I agree that the danger and contagion of COVID19 can and should be determined by “unbiased scientific enquiry”; that there are “large numbers of [unexplained] excess all cause deaths” in many jurisdictions; that the infection fatality ratio (IFR) is “a scientific question, which cannot be answered merely by using socio-political inferences”; and that IFRs (the fatality rate of all infected, not just those presenting as ill) must be distinguished from the initially inflated case fatality ratios (CFRs).

Given the nature of western opinion on many big debates – strong, often tending to abusive – few are likely to change their minds based on our arguments. Yet our agreement on the need for independent scientific arbitration is important because readers will have reference to our sources and perspectives.

Nevertheless I say Denis is in error in several matters of method and substance.

On method, his first error is to introduce personal anecdotes in an attempt to prove a general proposition: “I do not know anyone who knows anyone who has died of this thing”, he says, suggesting it cannot be very dangerous. This proves nothing, any more than the fact that I do personally know of such deaths and illnesses. Trying to prove the general from the particular is a basic logical fallacy.

His second error is to mix insinuations of a global conspiracy (without evidence) with an argument over ‘virulence’ which founds itself on scientific evidence. The vague back-text undermines his scientific logic and provides an alternative ‘escape route’ in case his recourse to science fails (i.e. ‘where there are excess deaths there is another ‘obvious’ cause’).

The third problem is his cherry picking of scientific estimates. All the scientific reports (including Ioannidis, on whom Denis relies) admit a large degree of uncertainty over many aspects of COVID-19. That means we should have regard to the range of scientific estimates on COVID IFRs. I did that in my opening, citing a range of 0.2% to 1.3%, with a consensus of between 0.5% and 1%. The seasonal flu IFR is commonly said to be about 0.1%.

In substance, Denis relies for his ‘no worse than a flu’ argument on Ioannidis, corroborated by some correspondence he had with an academic friend, Joseph Audie. He also claims the Washington based CDC revised its estimates in September to fit in with Ioannidis. Yet Denis does not report these cherry picked sources accurately.

John Ioannidis is a scientist who (with colleagues including Jay Bhattacharya) has engaged in political lobbying of the Trump administration since mid-March, to prevent a ‘lockdown’, based on his ‘relatively harmless’ view vs likely economic damage. Several of his arguments are now touted by Trump (see Stephanie Lee).

But his COVID19 predictions are poor. On 17 March Ioannidis predicted “about 10,000 deaths” in the USA from COVID-19. By that time the US government had reported just 121 deaths, one month later it was 38,000 deaths, six months later more than 200,000. In mid-July Ioannidis revised upwards his IFR estimate to a median 0.27% – but as much as “0.90% in locations exceeding 500 COVID-19 deaths per million”. That is, a median rate almost 3 times the seasonal flu. Audie’s letter mentions this but Denis does not.

Denis also wrongly claims that the US CDC in September revised its IFR estimates to figures “comparable to and smaller than” that of the 2009 Swine Flu. Not so. The 10 September CDC report cited by Denis says it relies on the European IFR calculations by Hauser et al, which range from 0.5% to 1.4%. The Audie letter bemoans the fact that the CDC in July presented “a second and higher estimate of 0.65%”, a figure confirmed in late September by congressional testimony from CDC Director Robert Redfield:

The preliminary results on the first round show that a majority of our nation—more than 90 percent of the population—remains susceptible … [and] that the overall COVID-19 infection fatality rate (IFR)—the share of Americans infected by the virus who will die as a result—is about 0.65 percent. (in Sullum, 29 September)

So is the “massive and coordinated information and recommendation (propaganda?) campaign” mentioned by Denis (i) that of Ioannidis and Trump, who play down the epidemic, or (ii) that of the CDC, which cites international studies to maintain that COVID19 is 6.5 times more deadly than the seasonal flu? The US state is clearly divided on the matter.

***

On the new matters raised by Denis in his 17 October response, first there was no need for me to “tar”, him as a ‘pandemic denier’. He does that himself in his Facebook group ‘Denis Rancourt denying everything’, where he says “I deny climate, vaccine, face masks, COVID-19, medicine, pedagogy, … everything!”

Denis spends some time on why he thinks so many people have died in aged care homes in the COVID era. I welcome his suggestions for the reform of aged care. But we know the Swedish voluntarist and ‘herd immunity’ approach did not work. Swedish health official Anders Tegnall admitted in August that older people in Sweden were worst hit than those in neighbouring countries (Holroyd 2020).

My emphasis on public health systems is not simply about a “funding model”, but about values and systems. I have explained this in several articles and it has relevance for the important debate about the costs of ‘lockdowns’, which are mainly in delayed or denied health care, plus child nutrition and schooling.

So health systems remain at the root of the important debate about ‘costs of the virus vs costs of the lockdown’. A British tabloid story in July, citing an unpublished government report, headlined ‘200,000 deaths’ in Britain from the ‘lockdown’. Most of these were said to be in delayed health care. Those who read through to paragraph 20 might have noticed the same report was said to have predicted 500,000 COVID19 deaths “if the virus had been allowed to run through the population unchecked” (Knapton 2020). Public health matters.

Find out more about our two eminent debaters here


Track the debate’s progress in our Coronavirus Debate Section.

References:

Anderson, Tim (2020) ‘Public Health, COVID-19 and Recovery’, AHT, 10 April, online.

Anderson, Tim (2020) ‘Myths of the Pandemic Deniers’, AHT, 6 August, online.

Anderson, Tim (2020) ‘How the Pandemic Defrocked Hegemonic Neoliberalism’, AHT, 22 may, online.

Anderson, Tim (2020) ‘COVID-19: the Swedish Model’, AHT, 4 October, online.

CDC (2020: 11 Sept) ‘Early Insights from Statistical and Mathematical Modeling of Key Epidemiologic Parameters of COVID-19’, Volume 26, Number 11—November 2020, online.

CDC (2020: 10 Sept) ‘COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Scenarios’, 10 September, online.

Hauser, A., Counotte, M.J., Margossian, C.C., Konstantinoudis, G., Low, N., Althaus, C.L. and Riou, J. (2020) ‘Estimation of SARS-CoV-2 mortality during the early stages of an epidemic: a modeling study in Hubei, China, and six regions in Europe’. PLoS medicine, 17(7), p.e1003189. 28 July, online.

Holroyd, Matthew (2020) ‘Coronavirus: Sweden stands firm over its controversial COVID-19 approach’, 4 August, online.

Ioannidis, John (2020: 17 March) ‘A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data’, 17 March, Stat, online.

Ioannidis, John P.A. (2020: 14 July) ‘The infection fatality rate of COVID-19 inferred from seroprevalence data’, Medrixiv, online.

Lee, Stephanie M. (2020) ‘An Elite Group Of Scientists Tried To Warn Trump Against Lockdowns In March’, BuzzFeed, 24 July, online.

Sullum, Jacob (2020: 23 July) ‘There Is More Than One COVID-19 Infection Fatality Rate’, Reason, online.

Sullum, Jacob (2020: 29 September) ‘The Latest CDC Estimates of COVID-19’s Infection Fatality Rate Vary Dramatically With Age’, Reason, 29 September, online.

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