Public hysteria vs. scientific thinking
|Gilad Atzmon 31/03/2020|
The Corona crisis has exposed our political and media establishments as dysfunctional and possibly dangerous. If the West was, until recently, associated with scientific, analytical, rational and methodical thinking, then not much is left of that Athenian reasoning. Like houses of cards, most of our Western democracies have succumbed to populist decision making that is, by its nature, deeply unscientific.
When I enrolled in university 35 years ago, scepticism and critical thinking were regarded as precious Western values. This approach has been discarded: skeptics are reduced into public enemies. They are scorned by the media and often smeared by their professional colleagues.
No one, I guess, doubts that the world is facing a hazardous health crisis, yet so many questions regarding the nature of this crisis, its origin, the virus at its centre and possible solutions are brushed aside in a manner reminiscent of historical clerical witch hunts rather than treated with the kind of reasoning that should be ingrained in us by Western Liberal traditions.
So far, only a few brave medical scholars and experts have dared to question the general trend. Off Guardian produced a good summary of the arguments advanced by some of the scientists who are unimpressed by the current official narrative and the strategies applied by our so-called elected politicians:
German specialist in microbiology, Dr Sucharit Bhakdi confirms that the Corona death rate is not a new phenomenon. “We are afraid that 1 million infections with the new virus will lead to 30 deaths per day over the next 100 days. But we do not realise that 20, 30, 40 or 100 patients positive for normal coronaviruses are already dying every day.”
German physician Dr Wolfgang Wodarg is not convinced that Corona is as dangerous as we have been told. He maintains that we should be asking questions like, “How did you find out this virus was dangerous?”, “How was it before?”, “Didn’t we have the same thing last year?”, “Is it even something new?”
Dr John Ioannidis is a Professor of Medicine, of Health Research and Policy and of Biomedical Data Science, at Stanford University School of Medicine. Ioannidis posits that the cause of the current panic may have something to do with the new diagnosis of Covid 19 rather than with the general symptoms of the virus which aren’t new to us. “If we had not known about a new virus out there, and had not checked individuals with PCR tests, the number of total deaths due to “influenza-like illness” would not seem unusual this year. At most, we might have casually noted that flu this season seems to be a bit worse than average.”
The Israeli doctor, Yoram Lass, a public health specialist, informs us that “Italy is known for its enormous morbidity in respiratory problems, more than three times any other European country…”
To this minority group of scientifically thinking medical experts we should add Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee, a Pulitzer prize winning author, who wrote a spectacular extended article for the New Yorker yesterday.
Mukherjee offers a different perspective on Covid 19 and its dangers. He explains that the impact of viruses is often influenced by the dosage of the virus a patient is subjected to. Mukherjee writes “three questions deserve particular attention, because their answers could change the way we isolate, treat, and manage patients. First, what can we learn about the “dose-response curve” for the initial infection—that is, can we quantify the increase in the risk of infection as people are exposed to higher doses of the virus? Second, is there a relationship between that initial “dose” of virus and the severity of the disease—that is, does more exposure result in graver illness? And, third, are there quantitative measures of how the virus behaves in infected patients (e.g., the peak of your body’s viral load, the patterns of its rise and fall) that predict the severity of their illness and how infectious they are to others?”
Mukherjee notes that in the current crisis, “most epidemiologists, given the paucity of data, have been forced to model the spread of the new coronavirus as if it were a binary phenomenon: individuals are either exposed or unexposed, infected or uninfected, symptomatic patients or asymptomatic carriers.” Mukherjee argues that viruses’ effects aren’t necessarily an on/off phenomenon. For instance, he compares Covid 19 to HIV. “People with a high set point [virus dose] tended to progress more rapidly to aids; people with a low set point frequently proved to be “slow progressors.” The viral load—a continuum, not a binary value—helped predict the nature, course, and transmissibility of the disease.” In many viral infection cases the more virus you shed, the more likely you are to infect others.”
The Russian immunologist Ilya Metchnikoff, working in the early nineteen-hundreds, described the phenomenon as “the struggle”—or Kampf, in German editions of his work. Metchnikoff imagined an ongoing battle between microbe and immunity. The Kampf was a matter of ground gained or lost. What was the total “force” of the microbial presence? What host factors—genetics, prior exposure, baseline immune competence—were limiting the microbial invasion? And then: was the initial equilibrium tipped toward the virus, or toward the host?
Mukherjee points out that in “a 2004 study of the coronavirus that causes sars, a cousin of the one that causes covid 19, a team from Hong Kong found that a higher initial load of virus—measured in the nasopharynx, the cavity in the deep part of your throat above your palate—was correlated with a more severe respiratory illness.”
This helps to explain the greater risks faced by front line health care personnel who are exposed to high dosages of Covid 19 on a daily basis and it also helps to explain why the hospital may be the most dangerous place to be. Those who have already developed symptoms who then enter emergency medical centres may well be exposed to even more serious or even fatal outcomes from the high dose of Covid19 and the many other diseases they can be exposed to.
This realisation adds to our understanding of the current tragedy in Northern Italy and Spain. It may even be that, as a general rule, the less you trust your public health system, the better your chances to survive Corona and other viruses. In Britain, for instance, the Government advised people who develop symptoms to self isolate and not to contact the NHS unless the respiratory situation seems to get out of control.
At a time of crisis and particularly at a time of a crisis of such magnitude, an open scientific debate of the Athenian Agora nature that includes the exchanges with qualified skeptics and critics provide the only light at the end of the tunnel.