Is Christopher Snowdon an Anti-Vaxxer?

Christopher Snowdon is plainly an anti-vaxxer, however well he tries to hide it. “Existing Covid vaccines are simply not good enough at preventing transmission and infection,” he writes. Hasn’t he read the trial results, showing 95% efficacy against infection for the Pfizer vaccine and 74% for the AstraZeneca vaccine? Or the large population study from Israel showing Pfizer’s 92% efficacy? Or the study from Public Health England showing 67% and 88% vaccine efficacy against the Delta variant for AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines respectively?

On what does he base his bald assertion that they are “not good enough at preventing transmission and infection”? Clearly not the science. He doesn’t appear to feel it necessary to give a single scientific reference for a claim that flies in the face of all these respectable studies, leaving the baffled reader assuming he must have picked it up in some article he read on an obscure website somewhere, presumably by a pseudo-scientific sceptic in denial.

This, of course, is not the way to go about intelligently criticising someone’s viewpoint. Which is precisely my point. As it happens, I agree with Christopher that the current vaccines are not very good at preventing infection or transmission, particularly now the Delta variant is in town. But I’m also aware that that is not the current mainstream scientific position (though it is based on recent official data and reports). Rather, it is currently a claim being circulated among the very networks that Christopher pillories in his recent piece in Quillette, naming and shaming the “coronavirus cranks”.

It seems, then, that Christopher is not averse to a spot of ‘crankery’ himself. But how helpful really is all this name-calling, mudslinging and smear by association? Science does not advance by consensus, by everyone agreeing, or by closing down dissenters. Christopher himself is evidently sceptical of one of the key mainstream vaccine claims – that they are highly effective against infection and transmission – so inadvertently places himself within the ambit of his own polemic. Indeed, at one point he fires a shot at the ‘smileys’, as he calls sceptics, for being sceptical of the vaccines, arguing the jabs “have been tested in clinical trials and have demonstrated their safety and effectiveness beyond reasonable doubt in recent months”. Yet he himself goes on to doubt their effectiveness!

The science of Covid is far from settled. Snowdon takes aim at some of the more colourful and dubious characters in the sceptic camp (criticising some claims I have no wish to defend, though he is hardly kind or charitable as he does so). But he notably leaves out of his cranky panorama some of the world’s most eminent scientists who take a sceptical line on a number of the issues he raises.

Sunetra Gupta, for instance, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University; Martin Kulldorff, Professor of Medicine at Harvard University; Jay Bhattacharya, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University. These three authored the Great Barrington Declaration in October 2020 and have been active in calling attention to the massive collateral damage from lockdowns, especially among the disadvantaged and in the developing world, and proposing alternatives to such extreme and unprecedented disease control measures. Yet they do not receive even a passing mention in Christopher’s very partial rogues’ gallery of sceptics.

Or where is Professor Carl Heneghan, Director of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine; or Sucharit Bhakdi, former Chair of Medical Microbiology at the University of Mainz; or John Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine, Health Research and Policy at Stanford University? Or many of the other scientists and medics across the world who have publicly spoken out and published research questioning some of the claims being put out from official sources about the pandemic. These are not charlatans, they are not cranks, and they are not obscure individuals who speak with no understanding or authority. They may not always be right, but neither do they deserve to be attacked and smeared by journalists for setting out alternative scientific ways of looking at the data.

The heart of the sceptical position on lockdowns, shared by all these scientists, is that they are not worth it. This claim has a number of aspects, and not all sceptics sign up to all of them, though all the claims have some evidence to back them up. They are:

  • The virus is not deadly enough to warrant the measures taken against it;
  • The measures are not very effective at controlling the spread, or at least, not enough to justify the harms and costs;
  • More focused measures would be sufficient, or at least, more justifiable in terms of harms and costs.

Other claims connected to these include questions about how well official definitions of cases, hospital admissions and deaths match up with actual clinical cases of the disease, the real extent of prior immunity, and the mode of transmission of the virus.

The vaccines are a largely separate matter, and not all lockdown sceptics are vaccine sceptics and vice-versa. The issues around the vaccines concern their novel genetic technology, the extreme speed at which they have been developed and approved under emergency authorisation, their questionable safety profile (with very high numbers of adverse events including fatalities being reported and serious side-effects being intermittently added to the warning label), and their real-world effectiveness.

It really shouldn’t need pointing out to liberal-minded people that all these questions are legitimate areas of scientific research and debate, and we should not assume that we already know the correct answer on each of them that would justify ‘fact-checking’, attacking and silencing all the rest. Indeed, Christopher himself questions the official narrative on vaccine efficacy, despite condemning sceptics for the same crime.

Christopher makes a number of specific claims in his piece that he seems to think are scientifically incontestable but in fact stand on very wobbly ground when given closer attention.

For instance, he asserts that the second wave in the U.K “lasted longer and killed more people”.

There were more Covid-related deaths between December 2020 and February 2021 than there had been in the first 11 months of the pandemic. At its peak, there were nearly twice as many people in hospital with the virus than there had been in March 2020. In Britain, as in most European countries, excess mortality went through the roof.

The data, however, tells a more complex story. Looking at the weekly total deaths, it’s clear that the second peak is much lower than the first (see below). The higher Covid mortality in winter compared to spring can be seen (blue bars) to be due to more of the non-excess deaths in winter being classed as Covid, whereas in spring there were many excess deaths beyond those defined as Covid (green bars). This discrepancy will likely have a number of factors behind it, but you have to think that how many people were being tested and treated as a Covid case has to play a large part, given that a Covid death is defined as a death from any cause within 28 days of a positive Covid test.

Note also that because it was winter the baseline was higher, meaning in percentage terms the excess peak was less than half the spring peak. This helps to put the winter epidemic into perspective.

The below average deaths since the end of winter have also meant that 2021 is now a below-average year for age-adjusted mortality (so far), the low mortality of the spring and summer having already cancelled out the high mortality of January and February.

Christopher is very critical of sceptics for questioning the reliability of the PCR test and the definitions of Covid case and death based on it. But this was a very live topic in autumn 2020, with a number of top scientists including Professor Carl Heneghan wading into the fray, as this correspondence in the BMJ records. The Lancet published a piece from NHS scientists in December stating that the operational false positive rate of PCR testing was estimated to be “somewhere between 0·8% and 4·0%”. Christopher argues: “The UK had a positivity rate of just 0.2% as recently as two months ago [May]. The false positive rate cannot possibly be higher than the positivity rate, but this simple logic continues to elude the Covid-sceptical community.” This simple logic is too simple, however, as it doesn’t grapple with the fact that the operational false positive rate can vary, including with the volume of tests.

Christopher claims U.K. infections fell in January because of the lockdown, but fails to engage with the fact that Sweden’s fell as well without a lockdown. In an attempt to write-off the significance of Sweden’s example of light restrictions, he argues that it became Europe’s Covid “hotspot” in the early spring. In fact, while Sweden’s positive cases went high, its deaths stayed low, while its excess deaths went through the floor.

Apparently aware of this, Christopher argues that “in an encouraging sign of what was to come, vaccines began to have a clear impact on mortality in Sweden’s third wave”. Yet at the point that Sweden’s ‘third wave’ peaked in mid-April only 6.6% of the population was fully vaccinated, so it’s hard to credit that with having much impact on either infections or deaths. Infections in Sweden then entered sustained decline, again with no lockdown.

Florida is another place which defies the lockdown narrative, having lifted statewide restrictions in autumn 2020 and experienced a very similar winter to states which imposed harsh restrictions. Christopher, again, tries to dismiss its significance, saying it had a “large outbreak in the winter” and a “resurgence in early spring”. But the point is its winter outbreak was no worse than the outbreaks in lockdown states like California. And its spring ripple barely registered in additional recorded Covid deaths.

Christopher’s next iffy claim is that the U.K had an exit wave in spring: “As the U.K. relaxed restrictions and took a more Floridian approach, infections began doubling every two weeks.” This is not the case. The U.K., like a number of U.S. states, lifted many restrictions during the spring without seeing a new surge. In the U.K., as in the U.S., the surge only came along when the Delta variant arrived, not when restrictions were lifted – and in the U.K. it declined in July despite the lifting of restrictions.

Steps 1-4 of the reopening ‘Roadmap’ in blue. Step 3 coincides with the start of a rise in cases but the other three do not.

Christopher claims that it’s “the first time cases have dropped without heavy restrictions since the start of the pandemic”. If that was the case it is surely remarkable and demands explanation, particularly as Christopher believes that “herd immunity is unlikely to come from vaccination”, so he cannot join in the current trend of crediting the vaccines for the fall. But it’s also not true. Leaving aside that Sweden and numerous U.S. states saw infections drop without heavy restrictions, even in England infections have peaked and declined prior to lockdown on all three occasions – as Professor Simon Wood has shown in a peer-reviewed article, summarised in the Spectator.

We can also see the same thing on the below graph from Imperial’s REACT-2 study, which reconstructs the infection curve from the (self-reported) symptom-onset date of those who tested positive for antibodies in their survey.

National lockdown start in red and end in blue (REACT-2)

Christopher’s piece contains a number of other over-confident claims, delivered with uncharitable meanness and sneer, but it would become tedious to rebut every one. This will have to do for now. I’d like to think his next volley against sceptics (with whom I think he has more in common than he would like to admit) will acknowledge and engage with points like the ones set out here. But on past performance, somehow I doubt it.

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