The news media loves bad news. The old saying is, “If it bleeds, it leads” when choosing the headlines for tomorrow’s newspaper. So good news is rarely welcomed.
Since the world became used to the term “Corona Virus”, there has been a consistent narrative that seeks to convince us all that the sky is falling. We’ve all been subjected to the daily White House Corona Virus Task Force briefings where reporters from the media consistently ask “gotcha” questions intended to portray the day’s events in the worst possible light. They seem convinced that the Trump administration is always try to keep them from the truth.
This same narrative has been promoted by many others in the world, including many scientists from various disciplines. Computer models have tried (unsuccessfully) to predict the number of infections and deaths that can be expected. Perhaps the worst of these was the Imperial College of London, which predicted more than 2.2 million corona virus deaths in the U.S. absent “any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behavior.” The study was published March 16 – the same day the Trump administration announced its “15 Days to Slow the Spread” initiative, which included strict social-distancing guidelines.
I confess I have been skeptical of this doomsday narrative ever since I first studied the rates of symptomatic infection compared to asymptomatic infection and the percentages of those infected requiring medical treatment. Early reports that 80% of those infected could be treated at home reassured me this was not greatly dissimilar to influenza. The more we learn about this virus, the more these first impressions have been validated.
But now comes similar conclusions from a scientist much more qualified than me. Dr. John Ioannidis, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, is a world-renowned expert in statistics, biomedical data, prevention research and health research and policy. He has published more than 1,000 papers, including many meta-analyses or reviews of other studies. Despite these impressive credentials, Dr. Ioannidus is being heavily criticized for his views on the corona virus because he’s looked at the data and found good news.
In my last post, Corona Virus Less Deadly Than Expected, I reported on a study from Stanford University that showed the prevalence of Covid-19 infection in the Santa Clara County, California community was 50 – 85 times as high as expected which lowered the mortality rate of the virus to between 0.12% to 0.2%, making it comparable to a typical seasonal influenza epidemic. The Stanford study was by Dr. Ioannidus and his colleagues.
Since that study was reported, two other studies have duplicated their results. The University of Southern California and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released their study findings that estimated the virus is 28 to 55 times as prevalent in that county as confirmed cases are. A New York study released last week estimated that 13.9% of the state and 21.2% of the city had been infected, or more than 10 times the number of confirmed cases. Both of these studies confirm that the mortality rate of Covid-19 is substantially lower than previously estimated, and more consistent with many influenza epidemics.
Naturally, the news media has tried to discredit these studies because they don’t support the “sky is falling” narrative. Allysia Finley, writing in The Wall Street Journal, interviewed Dr. Ioannidus and he explains their reaction:“There’s some sort of mob mentality here operating that they just insist that this has to be the end of the world, and it has to be that the sky is falling. It’s attacking studies with data based on speculation and science fiction. But dismissing real data in favor of mathematical speculation is mind-boggling.”
Finley points out that the news is filled with stories of healthy young people who die of coronavirus. But Dr. Ioannidus recently published a paper with his wife, Despina Contopoulos-Ioannidus, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford, that showed this to be a classic “man bites dog” story. The couple found that people under 65 without underlying conditions accounted for only 0.7% of corona virus deaths in Italy and 1.8% in New York City.
Dr. Ioannidus explains, “Compared to almost any other cause of disease that I can think of, it’s really sparing young people. I’m not saying that the lives of 80-year-olds do not have value – they do. But there’s far, far, far more young people who commit suicide.” If the panic and attendant disruption continue, he says, “We will see many young people committing suicide . . . just because we are spreading horror stories with Covid-19. There’s far, far more young people who get cancer and will not be treated, because again, they will not go to the hospital to get treated because of Covid-19. There’s far, far more people whose mental health will collapse.”
What about the lockdowns? They have been promoted as a way to “slow the spread” of the virus in an effort to prevent the overloading of the healthcare system that might have led to healthcare rationing. Fortunately, this has not happened. Despite all the rhetoric, there are no instances when rationing of hospital beds or ventilators has been reported. For this we can be grateful.
But lockdowns are a temporary solution. Dr. Ioannidus says, “People are making big statements about ‘lockdowns save the world.’ I think that they’re immature. They’re tremendously immature. They may have worked in some cases, they may have had no effect in others, and they may have been damaging still in others.”
He says most disagreements among scientists reflect differences in perspective, not facts. Some find the Stanford study worrisome because it suggests the virus is more easily transmitted, while others are hopeful because it suggests the virus is far less lethal. “It’s basically an issue of whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. Even scientists can be optimists and pessimists. Probably usually I’m a pessimist, but in this case, I’m probably an optimist.”
Count me with him.