New York Times

Why Are We Still Talking About Infection Rates?

Covid’s now been with us for almost two full years. Here in the UK, we’ve had three separate lockdowns. And as of Monday, two thirds of the entire population has been fully vaccinated.

Yet people are still fretting over infection rates. Last week, the New York Times published an absurd article titled ‘Needless Suffering: Britain offers a warning of what happens when a country ignores Covid.’

If three separate lockdowns and a mass vaccination program qualifies as “ignoring” Covid, I’d hate to see what “addressing” it looks like. Spending 90% of GDP on suppression and renaming the Health Secretary ‘Minister for Covid’, perhaps?

“Cases have surged this fall,” the authors write, “more so than in the rest of Europe, the U.S. or many other countries.” So? Covid’s rapidly becoming an endemic disease, and infections will creep up from time to time. But there’s no evidence that lots of people are getting seriously ill or dying.

What’s more, infections have actually been falling for the past three weeks. Indeed, they’d already started falling when the Times article was published – a reminder that, in the era of Covid, life comes at you fast.

Given that natural immunity confers stronger protection against infection than the vaccines, case numbers are likely to remain elevated until enough people have had the virus at least once. I’m not sure what fraction of people are currently in this category, but it might be about a third.

That means we’ve got a few months to go before the disease becomes truly endemic. And as vaccine-induced immunity wanes, there are going to be more infections. Why not just get them out of the way now?

Rather than being concerned about Britain’s moderately high infection rate, maybe we should be happy about it. The more people who get infected now, the less who’ll get infected a few months hence – when the NHS comes under greater pressure.

We’ve already offered the vaccine to all over 50s – three times over in some cases. Why should it matter if another ten thousand 20 year olds catch the virus? Aside from remaining vigilant in hospitals and care homes, there’s really nothing left to do.

I’ve made an alternative headline for the New York Times: ‘Needless Panic: Britain offers an illustration of what happens as Covid becomes endemic’.

New York Times Forced to Correct Article Claiming 900,000 Children Hospitalised by Covid – Real Figure Is 63,000

The New York Times has been forced to retract a claim by its reporter Apoorva Mandavilli that “nearly 900,000 children have been hospitalised with Covid since the pandemic began”. This figure isn’t just slightly off the mark – it’s 837,000 cases too high.

Mandavilli included this exaggeration in a piece on the vaccination of healthy children against Covid. It is bound to have swayed some minds. The National Review has more.

Mandavilli has been a controversial figure at the Times for her ideologically-colored pandemic coverage. In May, she tweeted: “Someday we will stop talking about the lab leak theory and maybe even admit its racist roots. But alas, that day is not today.” She later deleted the tweet but not before adding: “A theory can have racist roots and still gather reasonable supporters along the way. Doesn’t make the roots any less racist or the theory any more convincing, though.”

The theory has not yet been disproved. To the contrary, it has picked up a number of prominent supporters in the scientific community, including former Times reporters Nicholas Wade and Donald McNeil. McNeil was the lead coronavirus reporter at the publication prior to his being fired and smeared by the Times for uttering a racial epithet in the context of discussing its moral valence and grace on an educational trip several years ago.

The correction is notable as the nature of the threat that coronavirus poses to children figures heavily in the continued and often partisan debates over vaccine and mask mandates in schools.

While Republicans such as Florida governor Ron DeSantis maintain that such decisions should be left up to parents, President Joe Biden and American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten have advocated for mandates, insisting that they’re necessary to protect students and staff alike.

Worth reading in full.

New York Times Article Calls for Universal Masking in Schools, but It Doesn’t Stack Up

The authors of a recent New York Times op-ed describe universal masking as “one of the effective and efficient strategies for preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools”. And given the putative evidence supporting this measure, they ask rhetorically, “Why not require universal masking?”

The authors – a paediatrician and an epidemiologist – cite evidence from a recent study carried out in North Carolina. They collected data on COVID-19 infections among 864,515 students in the state’s school system from March 1st through June 25th, 2021. During this period, there was a mask mandate in place for all K-12 schools.

In total, 6,484 primary infections were recorded, and only 308 secondary infections. (Secondary infections refer to those among the contacts of students who were initially identified as infected.) “We believe this low rate of transmission occurred,” the authors write, because of universal masking.

By contrast, they note that “one school in Israel without a mask mandate… reported an outbreak of COVID-19 involving 153 students”. And “outbreaks at youth camps in Texas, Illinois and Florida show how quickly COVID-19 can spread among adolescents… who are largely unmasked”.

However, there are a number of problems with this argument. As you may have already noticed, there was no control group. The authors observed a low secondary attack rate, and then attributed this to the state’s mask mandate.

Yet infections were falling over the relevant time period in North Carolina as a whole. Only 390 cases were recorded on June 25th, compared to over 2,000 on March 2nd. And several previous studies have found “much lower” secondary attack rates among children, so it may not be that surprising the authors observed a low value.  

As David Zweig notes, schools in some parts of Europe and the U.S. did not have mask mandates, and there were no corresponding explosions of cases. What’s more, the Israeli study isn’t as clear-cut as the authors suggest. All schools in the country were exempt from masks for three days, so a single outbreak isn’t strong evidence for mask efficacy.

But put all that to one side. Suppose the authors are correct that universal masking reduces transmission in schools. Is it therefore worth doing? I would argue no.

First, there are tangible costs to mask-wearing. They’re uncomfortable. They get dirty. And they don’t allow you to see other people’s faces, which hampers learning (particularly for the youngest children) as well as social interaction more generally.

Second, it’s not even clear that we want to prevent children from becoming infected. For starters, they face an extremely low risk of death from COVID-19. According to a recent English study, the survival rate for under-18s is 99.995%. And if COVID-19 becomes endemic, which seems very likely, they’ll have to get it at some point. So why not now?

In fact, we might want to encourage children to become infected, the better to build up population immunity and protect the most vulnerable. (I’m of course exempting children who have a serious underlying health condition.)

Vaccination is another option, but I believe we should focus vaccines on those who actually need them, such as elderly people in other countries. And in any case, many people don’t want their children to be vaccinated.

The authors of the New York Times piece make two claims: universal masking cuts transmission in schools; and therefore we should require it. I’m sceptical of the first claim, but even if it’s true, the second doesn’t follow. Wearing masks is costly, and it’s not even clear we want to prevent infections among healthy children.

Kids have already paid a heavy price during the pandemic, thanks to months of ill-advised school closures. Rather than forcing them to wear masks, which could further diminish their learning, we should end the mandates and let them get back to normal.

Stop Press: For a rigorous and comprehensive review of the evidence on mask efficacy, see this piece in City Journal by Jeffrey H. Anderson, a former Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Did the New York Times Suppress the Lab Leak Theory?

There’s a fascinating article in UnHerd by Ashley Rindsberg, author of The Gray Lady Winked: How the New York Times’ Misreporting, Distortions and Fabrications Radically Alter History. He asks why the New York Times was so quick to dismiss the lab leak theory last year and concludes it may have been because of its Chinese interests.

In the opening months of the pandemic, the lab leak hypothesis was actively discredited by the media and scientific establishment, with anyone associated with it smeared as “racist”. The question we have to ask now is how, and why, did this happen?

To a great extent, I believe the answer lies with the world’s most powerful news outlet, the New York Times. At the start of the pandemic, the Times set the news and policy agenda on the lab leak hypothesis, discrediting it and anyone who explored it. The Times did so while taking money from Chinese state-owned propaganda outlets, such as China Daily, and while pursuing long-term investments in China that may have made the paper susceptible to the CCP’s strong-arm propaganda tactics in the first months of the pandemic.

As someone who has spent years researching the history of the Times, I was struck by the paper’s markedly pro-China bent at the start of the pandemic. It opposed Trump’s travel ban to and from China as “isolationist”. It all but ignored the unparalleled success of China’s arch-enemy, Taiwan, in containing the virus. It downplayed China’s economic war against Australia, whose prime minister early on questioned the CCP story on the pandemic’s origins. And it celebrated China’s success in battling COVID-19, taking the CCP’s absurd mortality numbers at face value, reporting in August 2020 that 4,634 Chinese people died from the virus and, six months later, that there were 4,636 total deaths. That in a country of 1.4 billion people only two people died of Covid-19 in the half a year defies logic and common sense. Still, the Times legitimised the CCP numbers by printing them as hard fact.

Of course, over the past year newspapers across the world have fallen for the CCP’s distorted COVID-19 narrative. And there is no evidence to suggest that the CCP did put pressure on the Times. But when it came to the lab leak debate, the Times was relentless. Starting in early 2020, when little was known about the virus – and nothing about its origins – the Times adopted a stridently anti-lab leak stance. In its first report on the topic, a February 17th, 2020 article covering comments made by Sen. Tom Cotton, the Times stigmatised lab leak as a “fringe theory”. Once the story was published, its reporter took to Twitter to describe it as “the kind of conspiracy once reserved for the tinfoil hatters”.

Only one week prior, another outlet made strikingly similar claims. In an editorial, the CCP-owned China Daily thundered that Cotton’s decision to spread “malicious rumours” shows “how irresponsible some are in their haste to attack China”. The Times, echoing China Daily, also cast the lab leak hypothesis as a “rumour”.

Over the months, the Times’s coverage grew even more strident – and more in line with Chinese propaganda. In February 2020, it gave a platform to zoologist Peter Daszak, publishing an opinion piece by him which claimed that the pandemic was caused by “road-building, deforestation, land clearing and agricultural development”. Daszak argued that “discovering and sequencing” viruses like COVID-19 in labs like the one in Wuhan should be a priority.

The Times, which used Daszak as a key source in over a dozen articles, has never mentioned that Daszak’s organisation funded the Wuhan lab, in particular research into bats and coronaviruses, a flagrant conflict of interest. Crucially, there was no mention of this when a reporter interviewed Daszak this February, following his return from a heavily criticised WHO investigation into the virus’s origins. (Danszak later recused himself from the investigation because of the conflict of interest.)

But the Times also never revealed that Daszak was a favoured source for another outlet: China Daily. The state-owned media organisation, along with Xinhua and sister outlet Global Times, repeatedly quoted Daszak to assure readers of China’s full cooperation in the search for the virus’s origins — and to discredit the possibility of a lab leak.

Worth reading in full.

New York Times Article Lays Out Circumstantial Evidence for Lab Leak Theory

Since the publication on May 14th of the letter in Science calling for a new investigation into the origins of COVID-19, the lab leak theory has officially gone mainstream. Numerous articles testifying to its plausibility have been published, and President Biden ordered intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to examine the virus’s origin.

One of the best articles that’s been published in recent weeks is a piece by Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times. Although she doesn’t come down in favour of one theory or the other (lab leak versus natural origin), she does lay out much of the circumstantial evidence for a lab leak. And it’s not in short supply.

To begin with, you have the location of the first outbreak in Wuhan, China – home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (as well as the Wuhan C.D.C.). It would be a remarkable coincidence, many have observed, if the pandemic just happened to get started in a city that hosts one of the world’s major coronavirus research labs.  

Some have countered that labs tend to be built where the viruses are. However, this simply isn’t true in the case of the Wuhan Institute, as Tufekci points out. The lab has “been where it is since 1956… It was upgraded and began to focus on coronavirus research only after SARS.” Even Dr. Shi (the “Batwoman”) has said she “never expected this kind of thing to happen in Wuhan”.

Next, you have reports about the rather lax safety standards inside the Wuhan Institute. In 2016, for example, scientists ran experiments on a coronavirus capable of infecting human cells in a BSL-2 lab – a biosafety level that “has been compared with that of a dentist’s office”. And in 2017, a Chinese state-TV story about Dr. Shi’s research “showed researchers handling bats or bat feces with their bare hands”.

Then there is the fact that Dr. Shi, her colleagues and the Wuhan Institute, not to mention the Chinese authorities, have given misleading or incomplete accounts of key events, or have simply withheld information. Aside from the location’s first major outbreak, this is perhaps the strongest piece of evidence for a lab leak. If the virus’s origin is zoonotic, why wouldn’t you let other scientists look over your files?

New York Times Article Wrongly Claims Britain’s Second Wave Was More Deadly Than the First

In a recent article published in the New York Times, the science writer Zeynep Tufekci argues that the B.1.617.2 “Indian” variant appears to be more transmissible than even the B.1.1.7 “Kent” variant, and could therefore be “catastrophic” for parts of the world with low rates of vaccination. 

As a consequence, she argues, vaccine supplies should be “diverted now to where the crisis is the worst, if necessary away from the wealthy countries that have purchased most of the supply.”

While asking rich countries to share their vaccine supplies with poorer countries surely makes sense, one of the points Tufekci makes in support of her argument is based in error. Linking to Our World in Data’s chart of UK daily deaths, she writes:

Britain had more daily Covid-related deaths during the surge involving B.1.1.7 than in the first wave, when there was less understanding of how to treat the disease and far fewer therapeutics that later helped cut mortality rates. Even after the vaccination campaign began, B.1.1.7 kept spreading rapidly among the unvaccinated.

In other words, she’s saying that the higher mortality rate observed in Britain’s second wave, following the emergence of the “Kent” variant last November, constitutes evidence that new variants can pose serious and unforeseen challenges to national healthcare systems. 

However, it simply isn’t true that there were more COVID-related deaths “during the surge involving B.1.1.7”. As I’ve noted before, the chart showing deaths within 28 days of a positive test (to which Tufekci links) gives a very misleading impression of the relative severity of the first and second waves. 

The correct chart to use is the one the ONS published on 19 March, which plots age-adjusted excess mortality up to 12 February:

The peak weekly mortality in the first wave was 101% higher than the five-year average. Yet in the second wave, it was only 42% higher.

What’s more, cumulative excess mortality was 483% in the first wave, but only 328% in the second wave. Of course, the latter figure is an underestimate because the series stops in mid-February. However, extending the series forward wouldn’t make that much difference. Indeed, there were nine consecutive weeks of negative excess mortality in March, April and May.

Countries with low rates of vaccination should certainly remain vigilant with respect to new variants, but decisions need to be based on the best available data – and that means age-adjusted excess mortality wherever possible.

New York Times Fact Checks “Deceiving” CDC on Masks and Outdoor Transmission

When the New York Times weighs in to fact check the CDC, you know something is in the wind. On Tuesday, reporter David Leonhardt wrote a scathing criticism of the U.S. Federal Health Authority’s recent advice that “less than 10%” of COVID-19 transmission is occurring outdoors.

Leonhardt points out that while this is technically true, it is like saying “sharks attack fewer than 20,000 swimmers a year” when the actual number is around 150 worldwide. “It’s both true and deceiving,” he says.

He calls this “an example of how the CDC is struggling to communicate effectively, and leaving many people confused about what’s truly risky”. The CDC places “such a high priority on caution that many Americans are bewildered by the agency’s long list of recommendations”.

They continue to treat outdoor transmission as a major risk. The CDC says that unvaccinated people should wear masks in most outdoor settings and vaccinated people should wear them at “large public venues”; summer camps should require children to wear masks virtually “at all times”.

However, in reality, “there is not a single documented Covid infection anywhere in the world from casual outdoor interactions, such as walking past someone on a street or eating at a nearby table”.

Leonhardt digs into the studies that supposedly underpin the CDC’s advice and finds layers of conservative over-caution.

Many of the instances of “outdoor transmission” in the literature turn out to be from construction sites in Singapore. This appears to be a classification issue.

The Singapore data originally comes from a Government database there. That database does not categorise the construction-site cases as outdoor transmission, Yap Wei Qiang, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health, told my colleague Shashank Bengali. “We didn’t classify it according to outdoors or indoors,” Yap said. “It could have been workplace transmission where it happens outdoors at the site, or it could also have happened indoors within the construction site.”

The decision that they were outdoors was made by researchers making conservative assumptions.

“We had to settle on one classification for building sites,” Quentin Leclerc, a French researcher and co-author of one of the papers analysing Singapore, told me, “and ultimately decided on a conservative outdoor definition.” Another paper, published in the Journal of Infection and Public Health, counted only two settings as indoors: “mass accommodation and residential facilities.” It defined all of these settings as outdoors: “workplace, health care, education, social events, travel, catering, leisure and shopping.”

Even with this conservative definition, however, the studies still found only a maximum of 1% of infections were caught outdoors.

So where did the CDC get 10% from? Leonhardt enquired and received this statement: