Covid-19: Science, Conflicts and the Elephant in the Room

 17 November 2020  - BMJ

Eshani M King
Evidence Based Research in Immunology and Health
Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, UK  

Dear Editor

Congratulations on your editorial highlighting the depressing levels of “corruption” taking place in the name of “beating the pandemic”. Scrutiny certainly deserves to be directed towards conflicts of interest within members of SAGE and scientific/medical advisors as examined by Dr Zoe Harcombe PhD, a Cambridge mathematics/economics graduate[1,2]. Aided by mainstream media and censorship by tech giants, this group controls the scientific narrative on which Government action has been based, even when the “science” relied upon is at complete odds with the views of many other world-class scientists.

Suppression of science and lack of open debate has impinged enormously on three issues of fundamental significance. Firstly, public fear of Covid has been elevated to levels that are completely out of proportion to the actual danger. A recent peer-reviewed paper by one of the world’s most cited and respected scientist, Professor John Ioannidis of Stanford University, quotes an infection fatality rate (IFR) for Covid of 0.00-0.57% (0.05% for under 70s), far lower than originally feared and no different to severe flu [3]. This paper is published on WHO’s own Bulletin but ignored by UK mainstream media.

Secondly, although deaths are currently running at normal levels, fear is being driven by inflation of Covid “cases” caused by inappropriate use of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test [4-7]. This test is hypersensitive and highly susceptible to contamination, particularly when not processed with utmost rigour by properly trained staff. Case inflation also occurs from use of excessive number of rounds of amplification cycles (termed CT) which amplifies non-infectious viral fragments and cross-reacting nucleotides from non-Covid coronaviruses/other respiratory viruses. These become mis-labelled as Covid. Even Dr Fauci confirms that a positive result using CT above 34 is invalid (Twitter thread, Jeff Nelson @vegsource 30 October 2020) but in the UK CTs may go up to 45, as confirmed by Professor Carl Heneghan of Oxford University’s Center for Evidence-Based Medicine: (House of Commons Science & Tech Committee, 17 Sep, 2020 YouTube.) An obvious improvement is to immediately halt any use of CTs above 34 and ensure that for CTs between 25 and 34, two consecutive positive results are required before confirming a case as Covid positive.

According to Professor Brookes, a Health Data Scientist from the University of Leicester, the UK’s official data shows no excess deaths due to respiratory infections this season (talkRadio, 'The number of people dying today is the same as it would be any other year', 17 November 2020 YouTube). Instead, excess total deaths have been driven by lack of treatment due to hospital closure/lockdowns and have occurred mostly at home. Whilst there is no question that the first wave of Covid, a then novel virus, was lethal to many, there is no sound evidence of any second wave.

The third and possibly the most consequential suppression of science relates to the narrative that people do not develop immunity following a Covid infection. We know that immunity to SARS-CoV-1 is very durable, persisting for at least 12-17 years [8-10]. Immunologists know that immunity to SARS-Cov-2 is no different. This is confirmed by many eminent scientists including Beda M Stadler, the former Director of the Institute for Immunology at the University of Bern and Professor Emeritus (Ivor Cummins, Ep91 Emeritus Professor of Immunology...Reveals Crucial Viral Immunity Reality, 28 July 2020, YouTube), and Sucharit Bhakdi, former Chair of Medical Microbiology at the University of Mainz [11]. The human population has encountered and co-existed with myriad coronaviruses throughout evolution. Most of us therefore have cross-reacting T-cells, B cells and antibodies derived from encounters with cold coronaviruses that can recognise SARS-CoV-2 [12-14], in the same way that people “immunised” with cowpox became less susceptible to serious illness from smallpox - as Edward Jenner discovered in 1796. This is why we do not generally die from cold coronaviruses and precisely why so many of us were not susceptible to falling severely ill from Covid earlier this year. Even the chance of passing Covid to your spouse at the height of the pandemic was as low as 17%! [15 ].

In line with expectations, mediators of robust long-term immune memory, memory B and T-cells have both been firmly established to be produced following even a mild a Covid infection [17,18]. Pouncing on a handful of examples of apparent second Covid infections is irresponsible of the media but suits the false [18] narrative that falling antibody levels lead to loss of immunity. The evidence that immunity lasts is all around us - if this were not so we would see as many people dying of and falling seriously ill with Covid now as we did in March/April, including doctors and nurses.

Pfizer’s vaccination trial data provides further confirmation of the now low rates of prevalence. 94 participants were apparently infected based on PCR positive results (of unknown CT so we cannot be sure they are all genuinely Covid). The placebo group must comprise around 22,000, half the total trial number. This yields an infection rate of, at the very most, 0.4% and makes the chances of escaping infection greater than 99.6% during the trial period. The vaccine might well be 90% “effective” - although we are yet to learn exactly how this is measured - but the risk of contracting Covid in the first place is self-evidently low. The risk of both contracting and dying from Covid using an IFR of 0.57 (the worst case) was a mere 0.002% based on pessimistic assumptions. Of course, the elderly and other high-risk categories face greater risk, but it is still far less than it was early this year and it will continue to reduce as population immunity builds further.

Hijacking of science by vested interests has resulted in immeasurable harms to society. Lockdowns, meant to save lives but being pushed by narratives that have little basis in science, have themselves caused loss of life, livelihoods, dignity, and humanity. We need to ask how we have got to this sorry state. It seems that only the extrication of science from industry by introduction of independent sources of funding for scientific research institutions, perhaps by levying a brand-new tax on industry, will allow the nation’s best scientists an independent voice and put an end to the suppression of good science, together with the mistrust and conflict it generates.

1. Dr Zoe Harcombe PhD. 9 November. SAGE conflicts of interest. https://www.zoeharcombe.com/2020/11/sage-conflicts-of-interest/
2. PM Hails “ herculean efforts” of life science companies to defeat coronavirus. 10 Downing Street Press Release. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-hails-herculean-effort-of-life-sci...
3. John P A Ioannidis Infection fatality rate of COVID-1937 inferred from seroprevalence data. Publication: Bulletin of the World Health Organization; Type: Research Article ID: BLT.20.265892 Page 1. 14 October 2020 https://www.who.int/bulletin/online_first/BLT.20.265892.pdf
4. Elena Surkova, Vladyslav Nikolayevskyy, Francis Drobniewski. False positive Covid-19 results:hidden problems and costs. Lancet Respir Med 2020.September 29, 2020 https://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30453-7
5. Dr M Yeadon. Lies, damned lies and health statistics: the deadly danger of false positives. 20 September.
6. Dr Clare Craig FRC Path. How Covid Deaths Are Over-Counted. 27 October 2020. Updated 29 October 2020.
7. PCR positives: what do they mean? The Oxford Centre for Evidence-based Medicine, University of Oxford.23 September https://www.cebm.net/covid-19/pcr-positives-what-do-they-mean/
8. William J.Liuabc et al. T-cell immunity of SARS-CoV: Implications for vaccine development against MERS-CoV. Antiviral Research. Volume 137, January 2017, Pages 82-92 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.antiviral.2016.11.006
9. Le Bert N, Bertoletti A et al. SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell immunity in cases of COVID-19 and SARS, and uninfected controls. Nature. 2020 Aug;584(7821):457-462. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2550-z. Epub 2020 Jul 15. PMID: 32668444.
10. Guo, Z. Guo, C. Duan, Z. Chen, G. Wang, Y. Lu, M. Li, J. Lu. Long-Term Persistence of IgG Antibodies in SARS-CoV Infected Healthcare Workers. MedRxiv (2020) 2020.02.12.20021386 doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.02.12.20021386
11. Dr Karina Reiss, Dr Sucharit Bhakdi. Book, Corona False Alarm? Facts and Figures. Pages 101-108.
12. Peter Doshi. Covid-19: Do many people have pre-existing immunity? 17 September 2020 BMJ 2020; 370 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m3563
13. E. King. Letter to BMJ: T-cells really are the superstars in fighting COVID-19 - but why are some of us so poor at making them? 21 Sep 2020 https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m3563/rr-6
14. Kevin W NG et al. Preexisting and de novo humoral immunity to SARs-CoV-2 in humans. 6 Nov 2020 DOI: 10.1126/science.abe1107
15. Frederik Plesner Lyngse et al. COVID-19 Transmission Within Danish Households: A Nationwide Study from Lockdown to Reopening. medRxiv 2020.09.09.20191239; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.09.09.20191239
16. Phuong Nguyen-Contant et al. S Protein-Reactive IgG and Memory B Cell Production after Human SARS-CoV-2 Infection Includes Broad Reactivity to the S2 Subunit. mBio Sep 2020, 11 (5) e01991-20; DOI:10.1128/mBio.01991-20
17. Isabel Schulien et al, Characterization of pre-existing and induced SARS-CoV-2-specific CD8+ T cells, Nature Medicine (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41591-020-01143-2
18. Tyler J Ripperger, Deepta Bhattacharya et al. Orthogonal SARS-CoV-2 Serological Assays Enable Surveillance of Low Prevalence Communities and Reveal Durable Humoral Immunity. Immunity Volume 53, Issue 5, 17 November 2020, Pages 925-933.e4 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.immuni.2020.10.004

Competing interests: No competing interests



This comment ABOVE is referring to the Editorial article BELOW:

Politicians and governments are suppressing science. They do so in the public interest, they say, to accelerate availability of diagnostics and treatments. They do so to support innovation, to bring products to market at unprecedented speed. Both of these reasons are partly plausible; the greatest deceptions are founded in a grain of truth. But the underlying behaviour is troubling.

Science is being suppressed for political and financial gain. Covid-19 has unleashed state corruption on a grand scale, and it is harmful to public health.1 Politicians and industry are responsible for this opportunistic embezzlement. So too are scientists and health experts. The pandemic has revealed how the medical-political complex can be manipulated in an emergency—a time when it is even more important to safeguard science.

The UK’s pandemic response provides at least four examples of suppression of science or scientists. First, the membership, research, and deliberations of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) were initially secret until a press leak forced transparency.2 The leak revealed inappropriate involvement of government advisers in SAGE, while exposing under-representation from public health, clinical care, women, and ethnic minorities. Indeed, the government was also recently ordered to release a 2016 report on deficiencies in pandemic preparedness, Operation Cygnus, following a verdict from the Information Commissioner’s Office.34

Next, a Public Health England report on covid-19 and inequalities. The report’s publication was delayed by England’s Department of Health; a section on ethnic minorities was initially withheld and then, following a public outcry, was published as part of a follow-up report.56 Authors from Public Health England were instructed not to talk to the media. Third, on 15 October, the editor of the Lancet complained that an author of a research paper, a UK government scientist, was blocked by the government from speaking to media because of a “difficult political landscape.”7

Now, a new example concerns the controversy over point-of-care antibody testing for covid-19.8 The prime minister’s Operation Moonshot depends on immediate and wide availability of accurate rapid diagnostic tests.9 It also depends on the questionable logic of mass screening—currently being trialled in Liverpool with a suboptimal PCR test.1011

The incident relates to research published this week by The BMJ, which finds that the government procured an antibody test that in real world tests falls well short of performance claims made by its manufacturers.1213 Researchers from Public Health England and collaborating institutions sensibly pushed to publish their study findings before the government committed to buying a million of these tests but were blocked by the health department and the prime minister’s office.14 Why was it important to procure this product without due scrutiny? Prior publication of research on a preprint server or a government website is compatible with The BMJ’s publication policy. As if to prove a point, Public Health England then unsuccessfully attempted to block The BMJ’s press release about the research paper.

Politicians often claim to follow the science, but that is a misleading oversimplification. Science is rarely absolute. It rarely applies to every setting or every population. It doesn’t make sense to slavishly follow science or evidence. A better approach is for politicians, the publicly appointed decision makers, to be informed and guided by science when they decide policy for their public. But even that approach retains public and professional trust only if science is available for scrutiny and free of political interference, and if the system is transparent and not compromised by conflicts of interest.

Suppression of science and scientists is not new or a peculiarly British phenomenon. In the US, President Trump’s government manipulated the Food and Drug Administration to hastily approve unproved drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir.15 Globally, people, policies, and procurement are being corrupted by political and commercial agendas.16

The UK’s pandemic response relies too heavily on scientists and other government appointees with worrying competing interests, including shareholdings in companies that manufacture covid-19 diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines.17 Government appointees are able to ignore or cherry pick science—another form of misuse—and indulge in anti-competitive practices that favour their own products and those of friends and associates.18

How might science be safeguarded in these exceptional times? The first step is full disclosure of competing interests from government, politicians, scientific advisers, and appointees, such as the heads of test and trace, diagnostic test procurement, and vaccine delivery. The next step is full transparency about decision making systems, processes, and knowing who is accountable for what.

Once transparency and accountability are established as norms, individuals employed by government should ideally only work in areas unrelated to their competing interests. Expertise is possible without competing interests. If such a strict rule becomes impractical, minimum good practice is that people with competing interests must not be involved in decisions on products and policies in which they have a financial interest.

Governments and industry must also stop announcing critical science policy by press release. Such ill judged moves leave science, the media, and stock markets vulnerable to manipulation. Clear, open, and advance publication of the scientific basis for policy, procurements, and wonder drugs is a fundamental requirement.19

The stakes are high for politicians, scientific advisers, and government appointees. Their careers and bank balances may hinge on the decisions that they make. But they have a higher responsibility and duty to the public. Science is a public good. It doesn’t need to be followed blindly, but it does need to be fairly considered. Importantly, suppressing science, whether by delaying publication, cherry picking favourable research, or gagging scientists, is a danger to public health, causing deaths by exposing people to unsafe or ineffective interventions and preventing them from benefiting from better ones. When entangled with commercial decisions it is also maladministration of taxpayers’ money.

Politicisation of science was enthusiastically deployed by some of history’s worst autocrats and dictators, and it is now regrettably commonplace in democracies.20 The medical-political complex tends towards suppression of science to aggrandise and enrich those in power. And, as the powerful become more successful, richer, and further intoxicated with power, the inconvenient truths of science are suppressed. When good science is suppressed, people die.


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