In his most recent book Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell discussed the concept of a “default to truth” — i.e. our fundamental reaction to the receipt of new information is to believe it. We assume that people (especially those in positions of authority) are generally honest.
We have witnessed a default to truth surrounding the B.1.1.7 strain of COVID-19, often referred to as the UK mutant strain. Journalists, politicians and even chief medical officers have breathlessly warned about it. Last week Brisbane and surrounds areas were locked down for three days due to a single case, and the federal government abruptly halved the quota of returning residents.
It has been widely reported that the mutant strain, announced on December 14, is up to 70% more infectious than earlier strains. Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan confidently claimed: “This is the British strain which is highly contagious and obviously causing mass deaths.” Queensland Premier Annastasia Palaszczuk warned: “This highly contagious UK variant … is a new ball game.”
These are dire warnings indeed. COVID-19 itself is a highly infectious pathogen (far more infectious than the lethal SARS-1 and MERS). A mutant seems downright scary, according to these expert premiers.
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There’s just one problem: there is minimal data to justify the sensational predictions.
The timing of the new strain was certainly convenient for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had been battling a weary population and a strident right-wing of the Conservative Party unwilling to accept further lockdown measures.
On December 19, five days after the strain was announced (albeit it had been circulating for months), Johnson gained political support to impose a lockdown on the UK. However, he was far from equivocal, noting:
Early analysis suggests the new variant could increase R by 0.4 or greater. Although there is considerable uncertainty, it may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant. This is early data. It is subject to review. It is the best we have at the moment, and we have to act on information as we have it because this is now spreading very fast.
It appears the world was being plunged into a renewed panic based on a variant that “could increase” transmission, albeit with “considerable uncertainly” based on “early data”.
Since Johnson’s comments a small number of studies have been released which, to be sure, did report a higher reproduction rate. But these studies have not yet been peer reviewed.
The highest-profile research was produced by the Imperial College of London which is led by the controversial Neil Ferguson. Ferguson once predicted that 150 million people would die from bird flu (282 people died) and in March produced modelling that claimed 600,000 would die in the UK alone from COVID (81,000 have died).
Shortly afterwards, Ferguson breached the UK lockdown to conduct an affair with a married woman.
Ignoring his somewhat torrid history of accuracy, the Imperial College also warned that the “new medical research … has yet to be evaluated and so should not be used to guide clinical practice”.
This also wouldn’t be the first time a mutated version of COVID-19 has proven to be a false dawn. As Emma Hodcroft from University of Basel noted, scientists had initially thought the B.1.1.177 strain from Spain “had a 50% higher mortality rate, but that turned out to be purely messy, biased data in the early days [and it was] a very strong reminder that we always have to be really careful with early data”.
The issue with the current British strain is whether correlation equals causation.
Because B.1.1.17 has become the dominant UK strain (upwards of 75% of UK cases) and case numbers are rapidly increasing, the obvious conclusion was that the strain alone caused the higher number of infections.
However, there are strong arguments to suggest that any correlation is coincidental rather than causal.
Infections increase in winter, with dry, indoor air aiding spread of the respiratory virus. At the same time, the UK has significantly ramped up testing (from a pitifully low base), so it was inevitable that the reported number of infections would dramatically rise in November and December.
The new strain hit the UK in September, when the percentage of positive tests started increasing. This dropped in November, and then rose sharply as the far colder winter took hold in December. The percentage positive chart (which adjusts for increasing test numbers) in the UK shows a largely expected increase:
In fact, the seven-day COVID average is less in the UK than in Ireland (which has a lower proliferation of the allegedly contagious strain) and below the Czech Republic and Slovenia:
It is certainly possible the British strain is more contagious. Or the spike in UK infections could be due to more thorough testing, poor social distancing practices and naturally higher infections in winter.
But there is a fairly obvious retort to the contagious claims: if the British strain is so much more contagious than earlier strains, why are other countries reporting far higher infection (and many other European countries reporting similar) levels?
With no peer-reviewed data and scant evidence, the only thing that appears certain is Australian governments — both state and federal, Liberal and Labor — as well as virtually all the media, have grossly exaggerated limited and untested data and imposed potentially highly unnecessary restrictions on movement.
And it seems that pretty much no one, from journalists to scientists to the opposition, has bothered to question it.
Have politicians and experts been too quick to accept claims about the UK COVID-19 variant? Let us know your thoughts by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say column.