In the wake of both the NEJM and the LANCET withdrawing two potentially influential papers due unanswered questions about the source and reliability of the data, one has to ask how good or bad the process of peer review is.
Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people with similar competences as the producers of the work (peers). It functions as a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field. It normally involves multiple steps:
- Authors send their manuscript to a journal of their choice for publication.
- The journal editor has a look at it and decides whether to reject it straight away (for instance, because the subject area is not of interest) or whether to send it out to referees for examination (often to experts suggested by the authors of the submission).
- The referees (usually 2 or 3) have the opportunity to reject or accept the invitation to review the submission.
- If they accept, they review the paper and send their report to the editor (usually following a deadline).
- The editor tries to come to a decision about publication; often the referees are not in agreement, and a further referee has to be recruited.
- Even if the submission is potentially publishable, the referees will have raised several points that need addressing. In such cases, the editor sends the submission back to the original authors asking them to revise the article.
- The authors do their revision (often following a deadline) and re-submit their paper.
- Now the editor can decide to either publish it or send it back to the referees asking them whether they feel their criticisms have been adequately addressed.
- Depending on the referees’ verdicts, the editor makes the final decision and informs all the involved parties accordingly.
- If the paper was accepted, it then goes into production.
- When this process is finished, the authors receive the proofs for final a check.
- Eventually, the paper is published and the readers of the journal may scrutinise it.
- Often this prompts comment which may get published.
- In this case, the authors of the original paper may get invited to write a reply.
- Finally the comments and the reply are published in the journal side by side.
The whole process takes time, sometimes lots of time. I have had papers that took almost two years from submissions to publications. This delay seems tedious and, if the paper is important, unacceptable (if it is not important, it should arguably not be published at all). Equally unacceptable is the fact that referees are expected to do their reviewing for free. The consequence is that many referees do their reviewing less than well.
When I was still at Exeter, I had plenty of opportunity to see the problems of peer review from the reviewers perspective. At a time, I accepted about 5 reviews per week, and in total I surely have reviewed over 1000 papers. I often recommended inviting a statistician to do a specialist review of the stats. Only rarely were such suggestions accepted by the journal editors. Very often I recommended rejecting a submission because it was rubbish, and occasionally, I told the editor that there was a strong suspicion of the paper being fraudulent. The editors very often (I estimate in about 50% of cases) ignored my suggestions and comments and published the papers nonetheless. If the editor did follow my advice to reject a paper, I regularly saw it published elsewhere later (usually in a less well-respected journal). Several times, an author of a submission contacted me directly after seeing my criticism of his paper. Occasionally this resulted in unpleasantness, once or twice even in threats. Eventually I realised that improving the publications in the realm of SCAM was a Sisyphean task, became quite disenchanted with all this and accepted less and less reviews. Today, I do only very few.
I had even more opportunity to see the peer review process from the author’s perspective. All authors must have suffered from unfair or incompetent reviews and most will have experienced the frustrations of the endless delays. Once (before my time in alternative medicine) a reviewer rejected my paper and soon after published results that were uncannily similar to mine. In alternative medicine, researchers tend to be rather emotional about their subject. Imagine, for instance, the review you might get from Dana Ullmann of a trial of homeopathy that fails to show what he believes in.
Finally, since 40 years, I have also had the displeasure of experiencing peer review as an editor. This often seemed like trying to sail between the devil and the deep blue sea. Editors want to fill their journals with the best science they can find. But all too often, they receive the worst science they can imagine. They are constantly torn by tensions pulling them in opposite directions. And they have to cope not just with poor quality submissions but also with reviewers who miss deadlines and do their work badly.
So, peer review is fraught with problems! The trouble is that there are few solutions that would keep a better check on the reliability of science. Peer review, it often seemed to me, is the worst idea, except for all others. If peer review is to survive (and I think it probably will), there are a few things that could, from my point of view, be done to improve it:
- Make it much more attractive for the referees. Payment would be the obvious thing – and by Jove, the big journals like the LANCET and NEJM could afford it. But recognising refereeing academically would be even more important. At present, academic careers depend largely of publications; if they also depended on reviewing, experts would queue up to do it.
- The reports of the referees should get independently evaluated according to sensible criteria. These data could be conflated an published as a criterion of academic standing. Referees who fail to to a good job would spoil their chances to get re-invited for this task.
- Speed up the entire process. Waiting months on months is hugely counter-productive for all concerned.
- Today many journals ask authors for the details of experts who are potential reviewers of their submission and then send the paper in question to them for review. I find this ridiculous! No author I know of has ever resisted the temptation to name people who are friends or owe a favour. Journals should afford the extra work to find who the best independent experts on any particular subject are.
None of this is simple or fool-proof or even sure to work well, of course. But surely it is worth trying to get peer-review right. The quality of future science depends on it.
Can I invite you to join me in a little thought experiment?
Think of a totally useless therapy. I would suggest homeopathy but there are always some who would disagree with this classification. I need a TOTALLY useless therapy, and one where we ALL can agree on the label.
What about ‘Potentised Toe-Nail Powder’ (PoToNaPo)?
PoToNaPo is made from nail clippings, thoroughly sterilised, ground to a powder, serially diluted and potentised. Does anyone claim this remedy to be effective for any condition?
So, we all agree that PoToNaPo is completely ineffective.
Now imagine some charlatan claiming that PoToNaPo is a highly effective cancer cure. Let’s furthermore imagine that he is very successful with his claim.
(No, this is not far fetched! Think of Laetrile, Essiac, etc.)
Imagine our charlatan makes millions with PoToNaPo.
There would soon be some opposition to his quackery. The FDA would issue a statement that PoToNaPo is unproven. Perhaps the NEJM would publish an editorial saying something similar. Ethicists would frown publicly. And many sceptics would head to the pubs where clever guys would give talks about ‘the scandal of PoToNaPo’.
We all know it would happen, because it has happened with PoToNaPo-like remedies many times before.
Now imagine a different scenario, namely one in which our charlatan does not claim that PoToNaPo is a cancer cure; imagine instead he had claimed that PoToNaPo is a holistic medicine that boosts your well-being via re-balancing your vital energies which, in turn, helps with anxiety which in turn might have positive effects on things like mild chronic pain, depressive mood, tension headache, insomnia, erectile dysfunction and many more symptoms of daily life.
Let’s furthermore imagine that our charlatan is very successful with these claims.
No, this is not far fetched! Think of … well … think of any SCAM really.
Imagine the charlatan makes millions with PoToNaPo.
What would happen?
- He would be invited to conferences on integrative medicine.
- Become an honorary member/sponsor of the ‘College of Medicine and Integrated Health’.
- He would be interviewed on the BBC.
- The Daily Mail would publish advertorials.
- HRH would perhaps invite him for tea.
- Trump might hint that PoToNaPo cures virus infections.
- Ainsworth might buy his patent.
- There could even be a gong waiting for him.
- And yes … some sceptics would mutter a bit, but the public would respond: what’s the harm?
We all know that things of this nature might happen, because they have happened before with PoToNaPo-like remedies.
So what’s the difference?
In both scenarios, our charlatan has marketed the same bogus remedy, PoToNaPo.
In both scenarios, he has made unsubstantiated, even fraudulent claims.
Why does he get plenty of stick in the 1st and becomes a hero in the 2nd case?
Yes, I know, the difference is the nature of the claims. But the invention, production, marketing and selling of a bogus treatment, the lying, the deceit, the fraud, the exploitation of vulnerable people are all the same.
Why then are we, as a society, so much kinder to the charlatan in the 2nd scenario?
I think we shouldn’t be; it’s not logical or consequent. I feel we should name, shame and punish both types of charlatans. They are both dangerous quacks, and it is our ethical duty to stop them.
END OF THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
Hard to believe but apparently true: it has been reported that the state government of Kerala distributed homeopathic medicines to people across the state as ‘immunity boosters’. A total of 4.5 million samples have already been distributed.
No, these reports were not dated 1 April!
They are only two days old.
Dr. B Vijayakumar, a member of the State level expert group of the Indian Homoeopathic Medical Association (IHMA’s) revealed that homoeopathy has had a long history in treating and preventing epidemics ever since its inception including those such as Dengue, Chikungunya, Chickenpox and Typhoid. “Its effectiveness in the management of viral diseases has proved beyond doubt many a time. Homeopathy, being one of the most sought after the alternative system of medicine all over the world.”
VK Prasanth, MLA who has been the former mayor of Thiruvananthapuram was the first to launch the distribution of homeopathic medicine in his constituency. “The centre has recognised the homoeopathy medicine to boost the immunity and thereby work as a preventive. When I associated with it, first I was criticised, but now the medicine is in high demand across the state.” said Prasanth.
The Indian Homoeopathic Medical Association (IHMA) is part of the Kerala Government’s RAECH (Rapid Action Epidemic Control Cell, Homoeopathy) programme which officially looks after all the epidemic activities in Kerala.
The government of Kerala even has a ‘Department of Homeopathy. Its stated vision is:
- Permanent establishment of Homoeopathic Health care facility to all Panchayaths in our state.
- To open more specialities OP’S in vulnerable locations like coastal belt, tribal areas, metros etc. And Speciality IP’s In our district Hospitals.
- To extent elaborate laboratory facilities in our district hospitals.
- To formulate Research & Development wing in Department of Homoeopathy.
- Computerization of all Dispensaries.
- As per the Central Govt. Decision and Direction by Supreme Court primary Health care in the periphery i.e. Panchayats shall be designed in such a way that all the three systems i.e. Homoeopathy, Allopathy and Ayurveda Should come under one roof.
We have, of course, discussed the track record of homeopathy in epidemics before on this blog. It is simply not true that the evidence is convincing. It is also not true that homeopathy has ever been shown to boost any parameter indicative of the immune response. It is finally also untrue that there is good evidence that any homeopathic remedy is an effective treatment of any viral infection (or any other condition).
Guest post by Christian Lehmann
It’s the end of February. We see the first death, in the Oise department, near Paris, of a French citizen who has not recently travelled abroad. For doctors concerned about what is happening in China, this is the red alert. In spite of of the little notices posted by the health minister, Agnes Buzyn, at airports, the coronavirus has made it onto French soil. Nobody knows at that point how it will spread. Almost nobody, apart from those responsible for it, yet knows that France has completely run down its stocks of masks. Doctors themselves do know that the health service has only held out, for as long as it has, on the backs of its care personnel. Some are assessing the scale of what is to come.
The announcement by Didier Raoult about the spectacular effectiveness of a synthetic antimalarial, chloroquine, has brought enormous relief, followed immediately for many of us health professionals by growing doubts about an accumulation of errors: Raoult denies any toxicity, urges people to “fall upon” a medication requiring sensitive handling. When we locate the Chinese article on which Didier Raoult is basing his crisis communication, we are stupefied. No need for specialised knowledge in statistical methodology to understand that there is something seriously wrong. No numerical data. Nobody knows what dosage has been given, to what type of patient, nor how many have been treated. The article has not been “peer reviewed”, that is to say reviewed by professional equals; decoded, it has the effect of a simple announcement. So of course at this chaotic time we tell ourselves that, given a revelation of such importance, the Chinese wanted to act as quickly as possible, to inform the whole world. And Didier Raoult, who routinely advises, as he explains with delicious modesty, the Chinese, « the world’s best virologists », has probably been entitled to the first fruits of this revelation.
On Youtube, on 28 February, he posts a weird interview, “Why would the Chinese be mistaken?”, in which he repeatedly takes up his interviewer with obvious irritation. “No, that’s not the question that you should be asking me. You should be asking me….” An informal group of doctors and tweeters pass around the link. We are rubbing our eyes in disbelief. What Didier Raoult is passing off as an interview is nothing more then an audience accorded to one of his media aides. We advise him, sarcastically, to make a professional cut of the video before broadcasting it. An hour later the video disappears and returns in a more professional form which could create the illusion of a genuine interview. And rapidly, in the Press which is beginning to turn its microphones towards the Professor from Marseille, he modifies his stance, without ever acknowledging the radical changes.
Chloroquine, spectacular and miraculous only yesterday, disappears as if by magic, replaced from one day to the next by hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), a different medicine, less common. Though its chemical structure is close to that of the antimalarial medication, hydroxychloroquine is used primarily in rheumatic conditions such as rheumatoid polyarthritis, or immune conditions such as lupus. So at least it isn’t lying around in large quantities in medicine cabinets. And its cardiac toxicity, very real, is slightly lower then that of chloroquine. Didier Raoult puts forward HCQ as an immense discovery, continuing in his usual manner to ridicule his detractors. “The doctors who criticise me are neither in my field nor up to my weight”. He flays the inaction of embittered petty health officials, only fit to follow the diktats of the authorities, who, bogged down in their catastrophic crisis management, dare not intervene. And his posturing as a refractory Gaul, a loudmouth taking on the system, gains sympathy, from those to whom he gives hope, from those who understand that the State does not tell them everything, and from those looking for a hero to fit in with their stereotypes: the man on his own against the establishment, the White Knight taking on Big Pharma, the Hippocratic colossus besieged by hordes of soulless ants.
No one among those who hold out their microphones to him, not one asks him the question which we are all asking, GPs, cardiologists, pharmaceutical specialists, emergency specialists, resuscitation specialists – by what sleight of hand has Didier Raoult exchanged his miracle medicine, in 48 hours, openly and publicly? And how is it that no one has noticed the sleight-of-hand? Has this man who makes such a big deal of his image on social networks suddenly become aware of the risk of being confronted about chloroquine with a justifiable public outcry and with deaths by self-medication?
While the World Health Organisation is sounding alarm bells, in the context of overall mistrust with regard to scientific opinion, of confrontation with regard to government, of growing awareness ( belated and sometimes disproportionate) of the influence of Big Pharma, and as the initial fear gives way to real panic for some with the registration of each new case, Didier Raoult piles up Facebook likes, fans, sites to his glory. And for us, fearful, begins the long registration of flagrant mistruths delivered as revealed truths, which this professor will never have the honestly to set right.
For Didier Raoult, a minimum of intellectual integrity would demand that he admits having changed horses in midstream. That he admits that the concern of his despised detractors was well founded, with respect to chloroquine to which many have access without knowing its dangers ( Nivaquine is very often used in suicides). And, because Didier Raoult withdraws nothing, he continues to stash away all the profits of his media coverage. Every supporter of the Wise Man of Marseille piles in with testimony. Their brother, sister, uncle, the father-in-law of their hairdresser has been taking the Professor’s medicine ( Which one? ) for eight years in Africa and has never had a problem, so that’s the real proof that his detractors are just jealous, or, even worse, backed by “the lobbies”.
And untiringly we repeat the fundamental truths:
- Yes chloroquine has existed for years
- Yes it is widely used
- But for a different treatment, the prevention of malaria
- And in dosages 5 to 10 times smaller
- And in large dosages it causes cardiac arrest
- And it has never been effective in fighting a virus
- Not this virus nor any other
- And the same is true for hydroxychloroquine
- In fact it’s rather the opposite
In fact what is being patiently stated by the upholders of the scientific method is very counter-intuitive, almost inaudible, because they are telling worried and disorientated people, who have put their trust and their hope in one man, that in his assertions………nothing makes sense.
These are exceptional times and they need exceptional measures. Therefore, I am yet again deviating from my policy of focussing exclusively on SCAM and welcome my French colleague Dr Lehmann posting a series of articles on the hydroxychloroquine story.
Guest post by Christian Lehmann
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
This pandemic diary was begun just before lock down, already four weeks ago, and yet I have scarcely touched on the elephant in the room. Our personal elephant is called Didier Raoult. White-haired with age, venerable in appearance, he has been number one in the press, constantly in capitals in online news headlines, waking hopes, feeding passions. And arousing the interest of a plethora of epidemiologists of renown, from Valerie Boyer to Donald Trump, by way of Alain Soral and Alexandre Benalla.
Everything begins on 25 February 2020, when the microbiology professor from Marseille posts his famous video “Coronavirus, game over”, since more modestly re-baptised “Coronavirus, towards a way out of the crisis?”.
Standing in front of a student audience out of camera, Didier Raoult reveals “a last-minute scoop, a very important piece of news”: the Chinese, whom he regularly advises, rather than seeking a vaccine or new products have been “repositioning”, trying old molecules, “known, old, without toxicity,” among them chloroquine, which has shown itself to be effective in a daily dose of 500 mg per day “with a spectacular improvement and it is recommended for all clinically positive cases of coronavirus. This is excellent news, it is probably the easiest respiratory infection of all to treat” Here, the whole roomful laughs, with pleasure, with relief, and I remember sharing these sentiments, briefly, but completely. Because this was 26th of February, because like others I felt confusedly that the reassurances with which Agnes Buzyn ( then the French Health Minister) was inundating us were built on sand, and that the virus would only laugh at little notices in airports.
I knew Didier Raoult only by name, as a columnist in Point, I had read some of his articles and I had felt simultaneously soothed by his smooth eloquence, attracted by some of his iconoclastic stances, but also sometimes rather irritated by his Mandarin-style fake cool posturing. At the end of February, I immediately reposted the video in the medical forums, on the walls of worried friends, explaining that, if the suggestions of Didier Raoult were confirmed, we would have escaped with a scare which would soon be dispelled by this “magic bullet”, this “game changer”.
Then between two consultations in my GP’s office, later that afternoon, I watched that video “Game Over” again. How could such an important piece of news have reached me by means of a Youtube video? Where were the overseas publications, the much vaunted Chinese study, the releases from AgenceFrancePresse, Reuters, the first articles from the New York Times and the Guardian, proclaiming from the rooftops that the pandemic we had so much feared was in fact only a technical hitch, easily controllable by a widely available drug. It was at that second viewing that I balked. As a GP who had worked in cardiac resuscitation some years ago, I was brought up short by hearing Didier Raoult talking up a medicine “well known, and devoid of any toxicity”. If chloroquine or Nivaquine, to give it its commercial name, is celebrated for the prevention of malaria, it is also a medicine known for its frightening toxicity as soon as the dose is exceeded, with the risk of irreversible visual damage and extremely serious problems with cardiac rhythm which can prove fatal. To say that chloroquine is without toxicity problems is in fact an error, all the more so because the dose suggested by “the Chinese”, without an iota of proof at this stage, is five times larger than the customary dose, 500 mg instead of 100 mg.
Deeply uneasy, I’m in discussion with doctor friends on Twitter when the video makes its appearance there. We know nothing at this point about Didier Raoult’s past, or about his Marseille Institute. Neither the enmity felt towards him by the Parisian intelligentsia represented by Agnes Buzyn and her husband, nor the fact that his institute has just lost its INSERM and CNRS accreditations, nor the stance adopted by him a month earlier explaining that coronavirus would never escape from China and that it was ridiculous to get worked up about it because “the world has gone mad, something or other happens and three Chinese die and that brings about a world-scale alert”.
Some of us, practitioners and first responders, knew well the toxicity of chloroquine, that it was to be handled with care, and that was about all we said on Twitter. It was already too much. The next day in a 20 minute interview Didier Raoult brushed away his detractors. “Malicious gossip, I don’t give a damn about it. When a medication has been shown to work on 100 people while all the world is busy having a nervous breakdown, and there’s some idiots who say there’s no certainty that it works, I’m not interested! It would honestly be medical misconduct not to use chloroquine to treat Chinese coronavirus”. And he drives the point home. “People who have lived in Africa like me took chloroquine every day. Everybody who went to hot countries took it throughout their time there, and for two months after they came home. Billions of people have taken this medication. And it costs nothing: ten centimes per pill. It is a medication which is extremely reliable and it’s the cheapest imaginable. So this is super amazing news. Everybody who learns about these benefits should fall upon it.” This is no longer a mistake, this is grave medical misconduct. Nobody who knows about therapeutics would use such words so lightly.
Cardiologists, resuscitation specialists, emergency doctors, GPs, public-health specialists, we are all alarmed. Our first warnings are vehement and rational, reaffirming the toxicity of chloroquine in cardiology, and the majority of us insisting on the senseless and significant risk which Didier Raoult is running. Because it is familiar, prescribed for long stays in Africa in packages of 100 tablets, chloroquine is lying around in many medicine cabinets. To declare as a fact that we should “fall upon it” in this agonising pandemic context is to encourage unrestrained self medication, and to endanger life. Incoherent, dangerous, this announcement disturbs us deeply. Incredulous, not for a moment do we imagine just what Didier Raoult will unleash, nor that the nightmare had already begun.
I have known for a long time that homeopathy can be dangerous, not least through the neglect of effective treatments for seriously ill patients. But I did not know that it can cause a bone fracture – until yesterday, that is.
Yes, you have understood me correctly! Here is the first case-report of a homeopathy-induced bone fracture:
My sister in law has two charming elderly ladies as neighbours. They are now in their 90ies and have, over the years, become very frail. She therefore has taken to looking after them where she can. Since the two sisters rarely leave their home these days, they have developed a new hobby: ordering things they find attractive through the post; it seems to be their greatest pleasure and has frequently led to complications that could easily fill a book of short stories.
Recently, an advertisement caught they eyes. It proclaimed in no uncertain terms that, even at their advanced age, they could re-gain some strength and energy through a specific homeopathic remedy (Boiron, I suspect, but I cannot be sure). This, of course, sounded far too good to not give it a try, and the two sisters promptly ordered what seemed to the the answer to their prayers.
The little package arrived yesterday, and the excitement must have been palpable. The more impatient of the two sisters insisted to try the wonder drug straight away. With her hands shaking in anticipation, she opened the tiny vial of globuli. Overwhelmed by trepidation, she spilled the entire content of globuli on the floor.
‘That’s bad but not disastrous’, she thought. Trying to pick them up, she stepped on some of them. As our frail hero weighs not even 50kg, the globuli acted like the ball-bearings or a pair of roller-skates. Her feet flew off, she lost her balance and landed abruptly and painfully on her side under the kitchen table covered by a table lamp and a chair.
The second sister rushed to help but proved to be too frail to get the patient back on her feet. This is when my sister in law was phoned and, ignoring the current lock-down, arrived with her husband to the rescue. What they saw was a scene of utter devastation: Globuli everywhere, their elderly neighbour moaning on the floor covered with various items she has tried to hold on to when attempting to prevent the fall. Together they managed to get the patient back up, but soon realised that she was badly injured. An ambulance was called and in the local hospital an X-ray confirmed the diagnosis: rib fracture.
I am glad to say, the old lady – my best wishes to her and her sister! – is now back home and recovering well. Little does she know that she is about to enter the history books of medicine as the first ever documented case of ‘homeopathy-induced rib fracture’.
[If you do not like black humour or sarcasm, please do NOT read this post!!!]
Donald Trump just announced that, at Easter, he wants to see churches packed, his way of saying the lock-down is over because it is damaging the economy. Many others have put forward similar arguments and have pointed out that caring for the vulnerable, sick, old, etc. creates an economic burden that might eventually kill more people than it saves (see for instance ‘Economic crash could cost more lives than coronavirus, study warns‘).
Many people have also argued that homeopathy is unjustly vilified because it is truly a wholesome and safe medicine that should be used routinely. The notion here is that, alright, the evidence is not brilliant, but 200 years of experience and millions of fans cannot be ignored.
I have been wondering whether these two lines of thinking could not be profitably combined. Here is my suggestion based on the following two axioms.
- The economy is important for all our well-being.
- Homeopaths have a point in that the value of experience must not be ignored.
What follows is surprisingly simple: in view of the over-riding importance of the economy, let’s prioritise it over health. As it would look bad to deny those poor corona victims all forms of healthcare, let’s treat them homeopathically. This would make lots of people happy:
- those who think the economy must take precedent,
- those who fear the huge costs of saving corona patients (homeopathy is very cheap),
- those who argued for decades that we never gave homeopathy a fighting chance to show its worth.
There is a downside, of course. There would be a most lamentable mortality rate. But, to paraphrase Dominic Cummings, if a few oldies have to snuff it, so be it!
Once we get used to this innovative approach – I suggest we call it integrative medicine – we might even consider adopting it for other critical situations. When we realise, for instance, that the pension pots are empty, we could officially declare that homeopathy is the ideal medicine for anybody over 60.
What do you think?
Boris Johnson said we should take the coronavirus ‘on the chin’ and count on ‘herd-immunity’. This, he claimed, is what his scientific advisers recommended.
I find this very hard to believe and have many doubts and questions.
To start with, I doubt that this is what Johnson’s scientific advisers recommend – it is a solution that SOME of his scientific advisers recommend. And it is a solution that seems easy to follow. It is, however, by no means the only strategy for tacking the pandemic; it is just one of several options.
The fact that all other countries have opted for other solutions, suggests to me that it is an unusual path to go down to. The modellers who obviously like it had to make a number of assumptions; that’s what modellers always have to do and rarely tell us about. But what if not all of these assumptions are correct?
The herd-immunity strategy counts on the fact that, once a certain percentage of the population has taken the infection ‘on the chin’, it is immune and therefore the transmission of the virus within such a population will be dramatically reduced or even zero. The percentage of the population needed for that to happen depends on how contagious the virus is. For the measles virus, herd immunity requires 90% of the population to be immune. For the coronavirus, the figure is said to be 60 – 70%. Is that an assumption or a fact? If it is a current fact, would the figure change, if the virus mutates? Could it be that a mutated virus can re-infect formerly immune people?
But let’s postulate that the herd-immunity assumption is both correct and stable. Johnson’s herd-immunity strategy would thus require that about 40 million Brits get infected with the virus to generate the required herd-immunity. Assuming a mortality rate of 1 – 2%, this means that Johnson is cheerfully accepting 400 000 – 800 000 fatalities.
But, as I said, this scenario is based on wild assumptions. It applies only if the virus does not mutate. And it only applies, if we do not run out of intensive care (IC) beds. However, running out seems possible, perhaps even likely, considering that we have only about half of the French and just one third of the German IC capacity. Sod’s law has it that both might happen. In this case, we might easily have far in excess of 800 000 fatalities. How should we take that ‘on the chin’, Mr Johnson?
Sadly, this is not all; I have further doubts about our PM’s ideas.
The present strategy regarding diagnosis of coronavirus cases is to self-isolate once suspicious symptoms start. Even if someone is seriously ill (with high fever etc.), they are told to stay at home and sit it out. This means we will never know whether these patients had or had not suffered from a coronavirus infection. How then can we ever be sure that the 60% target of infection has been reached? And if we are uncertain about it, how can we be sure that herd-immunity will work in the way the modellers predicted?
Moreover, we now know that people who caught the virus are infective BEFORE they develop symptoms. If that is so, the strategy of self-isolation will be far less effective than predicted. And, given this fact, are we not much more likely to have a sharp peak of cases early on which would make us run out of IC capacity? When that happens, even the pessimistic death rates might turn out to be too optimistic.
It seems to me that Johnson’s herd-immunity strategy is risky to the point of being reckless. It also seems to me that there are very good reasons why other countries have not adopted it.
But what is the solution?
In my view, the solution cannot be to uncritically adopt the theories and assumptions of modellers. This is not a computer game; we are talking about human lives, many human lives!
I wish I new what the best solution is – but I don’t. I merely fear that ‘taking it on the chin’ is not a solution at all. In any case, a wise move for Johnson and his team might be to consider that foreigners might be at least as clever as they are. Subsequently they could carefully study the actions of those countries which managed to bring down their death-rates despite being attacked by the coronavirus.
Today is a momentous and desperately sad day. Allow me therefore to deviate from my usual subject and write a very personal post (I promise, it won’t happen often).
This post is not about SCAM but about something that is even closer to my heart.
I first moved to the UK in 1979. The reason was simple, I had fallen in love with Danielle, the woman who now is my wife. I only stayed for about 3 years. However, as luck would have it, this short time would become the most formative period of my life, both privately and professionally. After a brief and unhappy stint as a doctor in a psychiatric hospital, I got a job under John Dormandy who opened my eyes to the wonderous world of science.
I nonetheless went back to Germany because I felt I had to complete my clinical training. In 1987, became a professor first in Hannover and then in Vienna. Even though the Vienna post was grand (to say the least), I soon became unhappy with it (no need to go into details here; if you need to know, read this or this). I thus started looking for other opportunities, ideally in the UK.
Why the UK?
It wasn’t because of the weather.
It also was not because of the food.
Nor was it because of the huge salary (the move roughly halved my previous income).
It was because of the beautiful memories. And it was because of my deep appreciation of the people. I had grown to admire their humour, their tolerance, their openness, their way of life, their way of dealing with problems, their politeness, their understatement, their honesty, their fair play.
Much has been written about my time at Exeter. Not everything was smelling of roses. But, on the whole and despite all the problems encountered, I had a really good time – mainly because my initial judgement of the people was being confirmed over and over again. I began to feel British and, in 2000, I became British. All my life, I had felt the burden of the recent German past weighing heavily on my shoulders. I had never managed to be proud of being a German. Now I was proud to be British, and I had a passport to prove it!
When Cameron announced the ‘in/out referendum’, I was baffled by the sheer stupidity of the move. How could anyone want to get out of the EU? It never made sense to me. The EU had given us peace for decades and was a guarantor that we Europeans would never again start killing each other. Why was that not pointed out in the run-up to the referendum? Most families had lost sons in the last two European wars. Why did hardly anyone use such arguments? Why was the remain campaign fought so half-heartedly? The other side was campaigning with (mostly vile and primitive) emotions; why did we not use positive and ethical ones?
I remember being in tears when I heard the results of the vote.
I remember fighting tears when acquaintances asked my wife (she is French and has, like I, a British passport) and me: ‘are you now going to go home?‘
Since the referendum, I have observed in utter horror and bewilderment how the county that I now call my home has changed.
What happened to the tolerance that I so admired?
What happened to the openness of the people?
What about honesty and fair play?
What happened even to humour?
During our 8 years in Germany, my wife and I had to witness our fair share of xenophobia. I despised my fellow Germans for it. Now I see it in Britain, and I feel nauseous.
What is happening to the county I love?
Carl Sagan was a giant in critical thinking and has inspired many, including myself. His book THE DEMON HAUTED WORLD is a classic. In it, he published his ‘BALONEY DETECTION KIT’. As it relates to SCAM and so much more that troubles us today, I today take the liberty of citing it here.
- Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
- Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
- Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
- Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
- Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
- Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
- If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
- Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
- Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
As I said, this is a good book; I warmly recommend it to you.