by Oliver May
New variants are of no concern. There is no need to cancel summer holidays. Millions vaccinated, coupled with immunity from millions of prior infections means we can surf on the crest of the third wave, rather than being remotely concerned about it. In fact, the UK should open now. And vaccine passports, certificates, or whatever name they are being given, will do nothing to improve the health of the population – all headlines we have read and heard over the past week or so.
Except, we haven’t. We have heard and read the opposite. And we are instilled with fear from TV and radio adverts, complete with ‘that scary voice’ all too eager to give listeners nightmares, be it your impressionable primary-school-aged daughter, or a frail older lady now terrified into wearing a mask outside while waiting for a bus with no one within a 50-metre radius. But the reality is that the above headlines could have been written – and all based on science. Jayanta Bhattacharya is a Professor of Medicine at Stanford University and one of the co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, the report that called for the focused protection of the vulnerable and no lockdowns, signed by almost 14,000 medical and public health scientists, nearly 42,000 medical practitioners and close to 765,000 concerned citizens.
I interviewed him by email and he remains a staunch lockdown sceptic.
Why have the media, politicians and many scientists sought to panic the populace about SARS-CoV-2 far beyond what the evidence would warrant? The incentives include financial motives, political goals, the desire to protect professional reputations and many other factors.
The virus is seasonal and late fall/winter is its season. It is very unlikely, given that this is the case, that the virus will spread very widely during the summer months. It is also the case that a large fraction of the UK population has already been infected or vaccinated and is immune, which will greatly reduce hospitalisation and mortality from the virus in coming months.
There are tens of thousands of mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They mutate because the replication mechanisms they induce involve very little error checking. Most of the mutations either do not change the virulence of the virus, or weaken it. There are a few mutations that provide the virus with a selective advantage in infectivity and may increase its lethality very slightly, though the evidence on this latter point is not solid.
We should not be particularly concerned about the variants that have arisen to date. First, prior infection with the wild type virus and vaccination provide protection against severe outcomes arising from reinfection with the mutated virus. Second, though the mutants have taken over the few remaining cases, their rise has coincided with a sharp drop in cases and deaths, even in countries where they have come to dominate. Their selective infectivity advantage has not been enough to cause a resurgence in cases. Third, the age gradient in mortality is the same for the mutant and wild-type virus. Thus a focused protection policy is still warranted. If lockdowns could not stop the less infectious wild type virus, why would we expect them to stop the more infectious mutant virus?
According to the three authors of the Great Barrington Declaration which, other than Dr Bhattacharya, include Dr Martin Kulldorff, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Dr Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford, the UK Government is creating unfounded hysteria around SARS-CoV-2. Dr Bhattacharya said:
According to a meta-analysis by Dr John Ioannidis [Professor of Medicine at Stanford University] of every seroprevalence study conducted to date of publication with a supporting scientific paper (74 estimates from 61 studies and 51 different localities around the world), the median infection survival rate from COVID-19 infection is 99.77 per cent. For COVID-19 patients under 70, the meta-analysis finds an infection survival rate of 99.95 per cent.
The CDC’s [Centres for Disease Control] and Prevention] best estimate of infection fatality rate for people ages 70 plus years is 5.4 per cent, meaning seniors have a 94.6 per cent survivability rate. For children and people in their 20s/30s, it poses less risk of mortality than the flu. For people in their 60s and above, it is much more dangerous than the flu.
Even so, this hardly warrants a new Government drive urging families to carry out tests on their children twice a week in the hope of unearthing asymptomatic cases. Especially, as the vulnerable have already been vaccinated.
The scientific evidence now strongly suggests that COVID-19 infected individuals who are asymptomatic are more than an order of magnitude less likely to spread the disease to even close contacts than symptomatic COVID-19 patients. A meta-analysis of 54 studies from around the world found that within households – where none of the safeguards that restaurants are required to apply are typically applied – symptomatic patients passed on the disease to household members in 18 per cent of instances, while asymptomatic patients passed on the disease to household members in 0.7 per cent of instances. A separate, smaller meta-analysis similarly found that asymptomatic patients are much less likely to infect others than symptomatic patients.
Asymptomatic individuals are an order of magnitude less likely to infect others than symptomatic individuals, even in intimate settings such as people living in the same household where people are much less likely to follow social distancing and masking practices that they follow outside the household. Spread of the disease in less intimate settings by asymptomatic individuals – including religious services, in-person restaurant visits, gyms, and other public settings – are likely to be even less likely than in the household.
What about mask mandates?
The evidence that mask mandates work to slow the spread of the disease is very weak. The only randomised evaluation of mask efficacy in preventing Covid infection found very small, statistically insignificant effects [Danish mask study]. And masks are deleterious to the social and educational development of children, especially young children. They are not needed to address the epidemic. In Sweden, for instance, children have been in school maskless almost the whole of the epidemic, with no child Covid deaths and teachers contracting Covid at rates that are lower than the average of other workers.
In light of this, what conclusion can we draw from the fact that the UK Government wants the entire adult population to be injected against the virus, instead of just the vulnerable? And the possibility that we’ll need to produce vaccine certificates to access hospitality and sports venues or travel overseas?
Vaccine passports are a terrible idea that will diminish trust in public health and do nothing to improve the health of the population. Vaccine certificates are not needed as a public health measure. The Government had it right previously. The country should open up now that the older, vulnerable population has been vaccinated. The rest of the population is at much greater health risk from the lockdown than they are from the virus.
The author is a staff journalist at a national newspaper group. Oliver May is a pseudonym.