Last week, hundreds of Iranians reportedly died from drinking methanol — industrial alcohol — believing it was a cure for the coronavirus. Iran’s experience is just another aspect of the panic over the coronavirus pandemic gripping many people and nations.
Right now, there are over 100,000 cases of coronavirus infection in the United States, almost half of them in New York City. People — and state governments — are trying to stem the spread of the disease through social distancing, hand washing, and quasi-quarantines.
Most of the U.S. economy is shut down. People are still hoarding toilet paper and other essential supplies. Panic — hyped by the media — is the common thread in these actions.
There is so much information being thrown at people that it’s hard to filter real scientific advice from the guesswork and pseudo-science that dominate other crises both real and imagined. Consider the globally touted work of epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson of London’s Imperial College.
Ferguson (who should not be confused with the brilliant economic historian Niall Ferguson) published the results of his computer modeling, which claimed that the coronavirus would kill about 500,000 people in the UK alone. He projected that up to 2.2 million Americans would die of the disease and that the health-care systems in both countries would be overwhelmed.
Computer models are used for a variety of purposes, from predicting climate change and pandemics to the design of fighter aircraft. They build on observable data to project the future by making assumptions. And, for each assumption they include in the mathematics of the model, they built in a degree of structural unreliability. The more assumptions built into the model, the less reliable it becomes.
Consider for a moment the design of the F-35 fighter. Much of the design was predicated on computer modeling instead of flight testing of prototype aircraft. When flight testing finally occurred, there were huge variances between the models’ predictions of amazing aircraft performance and the highly disappointing performance of the aircraft in flight.
Remember the 1998 infamous “hockey stick” graph peddled by the global warming crowd as proof of man-made climate change?
The hockey stick graph was created by data taken from a computer model crafted by a University of Massachusetts researcher. It “proved” that climate change was minor through the Middle Ages and that average global temperatures began to shoot up in the 20th century. Of course, there are no temperature data from the Middle Ages, so the temperature data was derived through a study of ancient tree rings and the like. The model also proved, said the global warming crowd, that man-made climate change was about to doom us all.
But there were problems with the computer model. As reported in 2004 in the MIT Technology Review, Canadian scientists Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick found, on the basis of their review of the computer model software, that it would generate the “hockey stick” graph regardless of the data input because it deemphasized — i.e., ignored — data that conflicted with the desired conclusion.
McIntyre and McKitrick’s work was severely criticized because it was not published by a “peer-reviewed” journal, but not for a lack of trying. It was rejected, repeatedly, by scientific journals because it didn’t fit the global-warming narrative. Which doesn’t prove that their conclusions weren’t correct, only that the “scientific community” didn’t want to consider the possibility that the “hockey stick” was wrong.
The “hockey stick” graph, despite the obvious error in the computer model that generated it, is still used by the global-warming panic peddlers.
Which brings us to Neil Ferguson’s computer model of the coronavirus’s spread and deadly effects. The data it generates have created the Kung Flu Hockey Stick.
Ferguson has revised his prediction down twice, first to 20,000 UK deaths and then to a lower number, but he insists that his model is still the best means of predicting the effects of the coronavirus. His work has been the basis for many governments’ actions — including the U.S. and UK as well as many U.S. states — and a lot of doomsday predictions.
Enter Dr. Deborah Birx, one of the top doctors on President Trump’s White House task force dealing with the Kung Flu crisis. Dr. Birx insists that the data — the actual facts on the ground on infections, deaths, and the spread of the disease — don’t match Ferguson’s doomsday predictions.
Her remarks are worth a couple of quotes:
Models are models. When people start talking about 20 percent of a population getting infected, it’s very scary, but we don’t have data that matches that based on our experience.
Birx also said that the media should not “make the implication that when they need a hospital bed it’s not going to be there, or a ventilator, it’s not going to be there, we don’t have evidence of that.”
Birx said that the job of the White House task force is “collectively to assure the American people.” She said, “There is no model right now — no reality on the ground where we can see that 60 percent to 70 percent of Americans are going to get infected in the next eight to 12 weeks. I want to be clear about that.”
Birx added that the model doesn’t match the reality on the ground in China, South Korea, or Italy. She added that if the model were correct, there should be about 500,000 deaths in Italy, which isn’t close to the real number. (Italy has suffered more than 10,000 deaths so far.)
Dr. Birx is being too diplomatic. What she’s saying is that Ferguson’s model — even as revised — is just plain wrong and neither governments nor individuals should panic or make policy based on its findings.
The U.S., and the Trump administration, are dealing with the coronavirus crisis in many different ways that should prove effective in reducing the spread of the virus and the deaths it causes.
American industries are responding to the crisis better than any other nation is, has, or can. Ford, GE, and 3M have pooled their resources to build ventilators (the hospital equipment that enables sufferers to breath) as well as face masks that may be able to filter out the virus. President Trump, having asked General Motors to help and found their response lacking, has ordered them to produce ventilators under the Defense Production Act.
Governors are ordering people to stay home and avoid gatherings. Some — such as Rhode Island’s and South Carolina’s governors — have ordered people from New York City to self-quarantine for two weeks before going out into the general population.
So far, the U.S. has the second-lowest death rate from the coronavirus. (Germany has the lowest.)
Another month, at least, will pass before the virus will reach its peak of infections in the United States. There is a possibility that the infection rate will be seasonal, dying off in the summer months and resuming in the fall or even sooner.
There may be a vaccine available by the fall, or it may not be available for another 18 months. Treatments of the disease are proving possible, such as with the combination of the drugs hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin or with blood plasma transfused from people who have already recovered from the disease. Both seem promising, but neither is proven.
Meanwhile, there are major outbreaks of the coronavirus disease in cities such as New Orleans. And people will continue to do stupid things such as gathering in large groups (like the spring break revelers on Florida beaches) and self-medicating like the Phoenix couple who ingested fish tank cleaner that contained chloroquine. (The husband died, but the wife survived.)
Trump has set a goal to get America back to work by Easter and is now reportedly rethinking that date, which is probably too early by at least six or eight weeks. Many sections of the country that are showing low infection rates can go back to work sooner than many others.
At this point no one can predict accurately how wide the disease will spread and how many deaths will result. Nevertheless, we need to have a level of confidence that our government’s actions will slow the disease and minimize the fatalities that result. Don’t believe the panic-peddlers in think tanks and the media no matter how fancy their computer models may be. As the Brits said during World War II, keep calm and carry on.