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
The UK government was one of many that reacted to the coronavirus outbreak based on worst-case scenario predictions. But the author of an alternative model has restated her position, saying the virus is already “on its way out.”
Sunetra Gupta is a professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford. Back in March, before the UK’s lockdown, she and her team published a study suggesting that the coronavirus may have infected 50% of the British population back in early March, before the lockdown measures were put in place. The model concluded that continuing on a path toward herd immunity would be the most sensible course of action.
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Boris Johnson’s government originally chose to aim for a model like Prof. Gupta’s, just as those notorious irrational hotheads the Swedes were. It soon, however, gave in to public (read: Twitter) pressure. Boris called in that professional harbinger of doom, Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson, instead.
A tale of two models
Prof. Ferguson’s model was nothing short of apocalyptic, featuring as it did half a million dead, and bodies piled up in car parks outside hospitals – everything but a yawning crevice in the ground and satyrs raining hell from the sky. So stark was the warning that he seemed to take it to heart, deciding to treasure a few moments with his married mistress while he could. For this small indulgence, he was eventually forced to resign from his post. But his thinking informs the government’s coronavirus policy to this day.
Prof. Gupta’s model, on the other hand, predicted that just 1 in 1,000 of those infected with Covid-19 would need to go to hospital, and possibly an order of magnitude less. This would have placed the true mortality rate at 0.1% or lower, something much more like the flu and much less like a Hollywood disaster movie. Today, almost two months on, the problem with all of this is pretty much the same as it was then: we just don’t have enough information.
One body of evidence that has built up since, however, is a number of studies involving ‘antibody tests’ that have been conducted around the world. The basic idea is that, if you have recovered from Covid-19, your immune system’s battle with the virus will have left a trace of antibodies in your blood.
Assuming that the antibody studies are more or less accurate, it would appear that Ferguson, and not Gupta, was closest to the truth. They show that even in badly hit countries, something like only 5-10% of people have antibodies. So has Professor Gupta repented, pledging allegiance to the new church of Ferguson-ology, whose teachings now determine our lives?
Sticking to her guns
Anything but. In her first interview since the original study was published, Prof. Gupta doubles down on her opinion that the coronavirus is not as bad as all that. Firstly, she reminds us how “a lot of these antibody tests are extremely unreliable.” Like everything with coronavirus, there are caveats attached: we just don’t know how accurately these tests detect antibodies in people who have been infected.
Prof. Gupta also points to the total absence of a pattern across countries with wildly different lockdown strategies as being highly suggestive of “hidden” herd immunity. “In almost every context we’ve seen the epidemic grow, turn around and die away – almost like clockwork. Different countries have had different lockdown policies, and yet what we’ve observed is almost a uniform pattern of behaviour.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter what governments do or not in reaction to the virus, as it had already been spreading freely through their countries for at least a month longer than they had assumed.
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She continues: “To me, that suggests that much of the driving force here was due to the build-up of immunity … I think that the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country.” Prof. Gupta is magnanimous, and while noting that “the jury is still out,” she says Prof. Ferguson’s model, while definitely being a “worst case scenario,” was possible, even if it was not plausible.
As if to put the tin hat on her dismantling of the government’s actions to this point, Prof. Gupta warns that the socially distant lockdowns are in fact precisely the conditions that put more people at risk of dying. “Remaining in a state of lockdown is extremely dangerous from the point of view of the vulnerability of the entire population to new pathogens. Effectively we used to live in a state approximating lockdown 100 years ago, and that was what created the conditions for the Spanish Flu to come in and kill 50 million people.”
The full interview is well worth listening to, especially as Prof. Ferguson is no longer gracing the airwaves with his opinions. His model was done at Imperial College London – a very great university, no doubt. But the modellers at the University of Oxford report are hardly dunces either. Make up your own mind as to who was closer to the truth. Hopefully, history will bear it out; after all, it is usually written by the victors.
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