(Image: AP/Hamish Blair)

The media suffers from serious cognitive bias. That’s no secret. But the past year of COVID coverage has really put it in the spotlight.

Back in March last year, as the novel coronavirus was ravaging Wuhan, the virus was wrongly dismissed as little more than another seasonal flu. It’s an understandable reaction. The last global pandemic of a similar scale was in 1968. Other threats like SARS and Ebola didn’t end up hugely impacting the West. We all assumed COVID would amount to little because, well, that’s what happened before.

In time, the threat of the virus became clear and it took over the global media narrative. COVID is clearly far more contagious and more lethal than influenza which kills around 400,000 people each year. However, in pandemic terms, COVID remains a minnow compared to the Spanish flu. That virus infected a third of the world’s population and killed more than 50 million people — many of them young.

By April, when the genuine impact and lethality of COVID was realised after New York and northern Italy, the media narrative had flipped completely. It tended to overstate, rather than understate, COVID’s impact and risk. And, even now, the media tends to focus on the negative impacts and gloomy forecasts.

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In early 2020, the media thought nothing could ever go wrong. Now, the media dutifully reports that COVID will never end.

A brighter outlook

Remember when experts said the development of a COVID-19 vaccine would take years?

Back in April, Australia’s most decorated immunologist Professor Ian Frazer (who led the development of the life-saving HPV vaccine) warned of the difficulties. In September, Frazer said that if the vaccine were 30% effective he would be happy.

Others like Jane “children overboard” Halton — the lifelong bureaucrat who somehow became a vaccine expert (she heads up Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) — warned that a large number of vaccine doses wouldn’t be widely available until 2021 with mortality not reduced until late 2021 or 2022.

However, data out of Israel (and slowly the UK) indicates that virtually no one is getting seriously ill after receiving the full two-dose vaccine. Out of 715,425 people studied, 317 (or 0.04%) became infected and just 16 were admitted to hospital.

Looking to the future

Some experts suggest the world won’t return to normal until 2024. It’s an idea that’s usually predicated on herd immunity.

As Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton recently noted, “to reach herd immunity, about two-thirds of the world population — 4 billion to 5 billion people — need to be vaccinated. Each person has to have two doses — that is 10 billion doses of the vaccine”.

But that shouldn’t be our only metric for success. Especially as it fails to take into account the very targeted lethality of COVID.

Unlike the Spanish flu, which killed young and old alike, COVID hones in on the elderly and already sick. If you’re an overweight, 83-year-old diabetic, your chances of dying if you contract COVID are terrifyingly high. If you’re a super-fit 25 year old, they’re infinitesimally low.

So we don’t need to immunise 6 billion people to prevent virtually all COVID deaths. We need to vaccinate the billion or so people above 65 and the other people at risk. Things can theoretically go back to some sort of normal when people don’t die from COVID, not when people stop catching COVID. Right?

But, aside from all that, something strange is happening. For the first time since the pandemic started, the number of people being infected with COVID is dropping. And it’s dropping fast. (Bear in mind: vaccinations have not had time to impact global numbers yet.)

There could be several reasons for the drop off. It could be that winter is coming to an end in the northern hemisphere (respiratory illnesses are historically far worse during winter). Or it could be that the virus is slowly dying off before the vaccines have a material impact.

Regardless of the cause, the data appears far more positive than the media would care to report.