HART’s Covid Report Attacked in the Times

HART’s must-read report “COVID-19: an overview of the evidence“, written about in Lockdown Sceptics on Thursday, has been making waves today. Former Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Sumption praised it in the Telegraph this morning, and then this afternoon Times Science Editor Tom Whipple did his best to bury it under smears of being anti-vaccine and “extremely irresponsible”.

In a mean-spirited piece that makes no effort to engage with the arguments of the report, Whipple rounds up the usual suspects to heap opprobrium on anything that deviates from the establishment line or raises awkward questions.

Originally headlined “Scientists condemn report claiming vaccines caused second wave deaths”, it now reads “Scientists condemn report questioning role of vaccine in second wave deaths”, presumably after someone pointed out to the editors that the report never makes such a claim but only raises questions based on patterns in data. The report clearly states that “we cannot infer causation from correlation”.

Whipple writes:

Among arguments about the harms caused by lockdown the 50-page document also states that the rollout of the Pfizer vaccine coincided with a large number of deaths and this may not have been a coincidence. “When something in data is this unusual, we have to ask questions, no matter how uncomfortable they may be,” it states, in a chapter written by a “quantitative analyst” called Joel Smalley. “It would be extremely unscientific and even negligent not to investigate whether the rise in deaths during this period is linked in some way to the vaccine rollout.” He suggested the Pfizer vaccine had not been tested sufficiently on older people.

Jeremy Brown, from UCL and a member of the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said this was “ridiculous”. He pointed to the now extensive real-world data showing the vaccines were safe and reduced deaths. “It is quite conclusively true that the vaccine offers protection in the real world,” he said. Far from killing people, he said, “if you’ve been vaccinated you have around an 85% lower chance of ending up in hospital”.

The rise in deaths was caused by infections, he said, rather than vaccines.

He added that academics should not be endorsing the idea vaccines may be causing mass death. “The only way out of this mess is the vaccine so anything that undermines that is distinctly unhelpful,” he said.

Jonathan Ball, professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, added that to make the link “shows a blatant disregard for the facts” and “is irresponsible in the extreme”.

HART this evening published a response that clarifies they are not making claims so much as raising questions.

While scientists quoted in the article have dismissed HART’s suggestion that there is a possible link between vaccination and COVID-19 infections, it is worth highlighting that earlier this month a study led by Public Health England found a “notable” rise in COVID-19 infections in the over-70s immediately after receiving a vaccine.

We are not asserting that vaccines are the only possible cause of “second wave” cases and deaths. We are not asserting that the vaccines are, in and of themselves, dangerous or deadly. There are many factors at play here. For example, the increased contact from the vaccination programme or from possible relaxation of social distancing following vaccination have been suggested as possible causes for the correlation. It has also been shown that lymphocyte levels fall in the first three days after Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination. The phase two trial of AstraZeneca showed a transient neutropenia in 46% of patients in the vaccine arm (compared to 7% in the control arm). Whether this suppressed immunity sufficiently accounts for increased susceptibility is uncertain. These observations have no bearing on the efficacy of the vaccines which is a separate issue.

They draw attention to a number of studies that show a spike in infections in the days following vaccination: the FDA Pfizer report that found a 40% increase in the vaccinated versus placebo arm in the first week of the trial; an Israeli study reporting a doubling in daily incidence until about eight days after the Pfizer vaccine had been given; a Danish paper showing a 40% increase of COVID-19 in the vaccinated in the first two weeks; and a Public Health England study that noted a 48% increase in Covid in the first nine days after vaccination.

Whipple also takes the report to task for supposedly getting the false positive rate of PCR tests wrong.

The report, which has been backed by other Tory MPs, also states that the false positive rate of Covid tests is 0.8-4%. To support this claim, which contradicts all the real-world evidence, it cites a paper that explicitly says the true rate must be lower.

However, as HART point out in their response, the figure they use is simply the Government’s own current estimate of the false positive rate. If that “contradicts all the real-world evidence” then Whipple should take it up with Public Health England, not HART.

Whipple is also unhappy with the claim that “50% of the population is already immune to the coronavirus”. It appears from the report that this figure is drawn from a review of evidence on pre-existing immunity in the BMJ.

Memory T cells are known for their ability to affect the clinical severity and susceptibility to future infection, and the T cell studies documenting pre-existing reactivity to SARS-CoV-2 in 20-50% of people suggest that antibodies are not the full story.

While these results do not necessarily mean 50% of the population has pre-existing immunity, as Dr Mike Yeadon wrote for Lockdown Sceptics, with COVID-19 one must also factor children into the immune category, and between adults with T cells and children you are getting on for “about 50%”, as HART put it.

Whipple also quibbles with the report’s claim that “there is no evidence the UK variant, which has come to dominate in countries around the world, is more transmissible”. Yet this claim was drawn from a study in Nature headed: “No evidence for increased transmissibility from recurrent mutations in SARS-CoV-2.” The evidence on this may change of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that science does not proceed by consensus and it is not “irresponsible” to cite peer-reviewed papers to support an alternative point of view.

Having amassed what he presumably regards as conclusive evidence that the report is full of falsehoods and heresy, Whipple attempts to tar others by association for daring to endorse it, including Toby, while the editors obligingly stick a picture of Sir Graham Brady at the top. That’ll teach MPs to think twice before backing anything from the renegade scientists again.

Whipple writes:

The report has found other backers. Jonathan Sumption, the former Supreme Court Judge, described it in the Telegraph as “scrupulously referenced to specialist research”. Toby Young, a journalist and founder of the Lockdown Sceptics website, described it as a “devastating” assessment by “highly qualified” experts.

In contrast Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, said the report was “the reverse of science” and “bizarre”, adding that the authors “seem to have worked backwards, deploying only research findings which fit their ideology, or they simply don’t bother with anything so inconvenient”.

“The smearing of some of the current vaccines is particularly egregious,” he said. “It seems calculated to grab attention and frighten people, it could cost lives if anyone were foolish enough to believe it.”

The piece initially went out without a comment from HART, though one was later added:

A spokesperson for HART said, “In HART’s recently published overview of COVID-19 evidence, we noted that the January peak in Covid cases and deaths correlated both in time and geographically with the mass roll-out of the novel vaccines. However, HART is mindful that correlation does not always equal causation and we are not asserting that vaccines are the cause.”

At Lockdown Sceptics we are acutely aware that, as far as the Government and much of the public is concerned, as Jeremy Brown said, “the only way out of this mess is the vaccine”. That’s why we support the (voluntary, obviously) vaccination programmes and would never discourage anyone from getting a vaccine if that is what they consider to be right for them and their health. However, we also believe in free enquiry, and scientists raising questions, and exploring potential trends in data to see what they might be telling us – and we don’t think that that is irresponsible, pandemic or no pandemic. On the contrary, the irresponsible thing is to close down scientific enquiry for the sake of a questionable “greater good”.

Stop Press: Whipple’s article is headlined: “Scientists condemn report questioning role of vaccine in second wave deaths.” But not all scientists, it seems. A woman describing herself as a “scientist” at UCL wrote this Rapid Response in the BMJ on Monday: “After the initiation of vaccine programme, almost all countries experienced a sudden surge of transmission and most countries had to impose strict lockdown measures.”

Stop Press 2: Hector Drummond was unimpressed with Whipple’s mudslinging, tweeting: “The establishment is badly rattled. This is a hatchet job of unprecedented partisanship by the Times‘ tame science lapdog Tom Whipple. They’d prefer to say nothing about HART’s report, but have been forced to attack it because it is getting noticed.”

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