By Peter Andrews, Irish science journalist and writer, based in London. He has a background in the life sciences, and graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in genetics
Amidst the coronavirus lockdown, some of the claims of governments and media have been shown to be exaggerated. Ten years ago, they tried the same thing with swine flu. They haven't learned their lessons - has the public?
On Wednesday, RT picked apart the sensationalist mortality rates that media and governments have been using to terrify the public. These figures are the product of some transparently weak statistics, and cast the true threat from Covid-19 into doubt. There is a saying among statisticians who generate the projections of how pandemics will spread that goes: ‘'All models are wrong.'' How true that may soon be proven. Now, in the heat of the coronavirus crisis, epidemiologists and computer modelers are being yanked in front of governments and parliaments to give their worst case scenario predictions ... and some are already emerging with egg on their face.
One such expert is Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, who has been testifying before the British parliament on how many people he thinks will ultimately fall prey to Covid-19. Professor Ferguson was giving evidence as part of a parliamentary select committee on science and technology. His initial projection was that Covid-19 would claim the lives of 500,000 people in the UK - but he has revised that projection. Ferguson now believes that at most 20,000 people will die - and it could be much lower.
The eminent epidemiologist's U-turn has not been widely reported to the public, but reportage from inside the hearing says that Professor Ferguson is now calling a figure 25 times smaller than his original prediction the absolute maximum. One wonders what has happened to change his mind - it seems that the lower than expected mortality rates are causing experts to re-evaluate their more apocalyptic predictions. Professor Ferguson actually has Covid-19 himself -perhaps it is not as bad as he thought.
Moreover, Professor Ferguson told the British parliament that he believes the UK's national health system (NHS) has enough intensive care beds and equipment to handle the pandemic. And although the peak not having hit just yet, he believes that the UK will come through the worst relatively smoothly. Much ado about nothing, then?
Year of the pig
The coronavirus is the third global pandemic in the last 20 years. The first was Sars, and the second, many readers will remember better, was swine flu, or the A/H1N1 virus, which struck just over 10 years ago. It emerged in Mexico in the spring of 2009, and went on to infect hundreds of thousands of people across the world, with the virus being spread far and wide by international air travel.
Eventually it was declared a global pandemic by the WHO. Regarding its impact on the media, it had roughly the effect that a bucket of fish guts dumped into coastal waters has on the nearby sharks. They smelled blood and spilled ink, falling over each other in their attempts to generate headlines and unearth frightening statistics. (The Guardian of all places published an opinion piece on the media's failings during the outbreak.) Does any of this sound familiar?
Professor Sir Liam Donaldson was the chief medical officer for England at the time. He announced that the worst case scenario would see almost 19 million people infected by the virus, and a mortality rate of around 0.35% resulting in about 65,000 deaths. Based largely on Sir Liam's worst case scenario (after all, one must prepare for the worst) the British government got an enormous vaccination program underway, which was to prioritize those particularly at risk (the elderly, pregnant women and children) before a general roll-out to the rest of the population. They bought 90 million doses in total from pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline and Baxter.
Needless to say, that did not happen. By the spring of 2010, it was clear that A/H1N1 was far less deadly than previous flu epidemics. But remember that 65,000 deaths was Sir Liam's worst case scenario; what was his best case scenario? At a minimum, he predicted, swine flu would infect around 3 million Brits and kill only 3,100. Much less frightening. So how did the final tallies stand?
In the end, fewer than 500 British people died from swine flu, almost all people with underlying health conditions. This represented less than one-sixth of the chief medical officer's best case scenario. The government were overjoyed, of course, that so many of its citizens had been spared death, but were left holding a bag containing tens of millions of leftover doses of A/H1N1 vaccine, and no one left to immunize. Rather awkward.
Nevertheless, there was no great backlash against the British government for their own vaccine panic buying, probably because the public were never that worked up about swine flu in the first place. Despite the media's best efforts, the ‘pandemic' just never lived up to its name - basically it was just another strain of flu. Michael Summers was the vice-chair of the Patient's Association back then, and he admitted that when it came to handing huge vaccine contracts to pharmaceutical companies, there were certainly ‘'lessons to be learnt". That was about as far as any major criticism of the affair went.
A new media landscape
But a decade on, the lessons of history appear to have been forgotten. The coronavirus origin story, which is like something from a Hollywood movie, and the fact that it is somewhat more dangerous than swine flu, along with social media information saturation have combined to make a perfect storm of overreaction that will plunge the world into a second Great Depression.
Worst of all is a social climate that labels those questioning established narratives and conventional wisdom as pariahs. And if you do question those narratives, as ancient wisdom teaches us to, you are as likely to be shouted down by Joe Public as you are by a blue-checked journalist. All you can do, as an open minded individual, is to think for yourself, take nothing for granted and stay safe. Not only from the virus, but from the reckless media hype as well.
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