COVID-19, another panic?

Michael Fumento became prominent with his provocative book, The myth of heterosexual AIDS. On the whole I think Fumento’s point, that HIV-AIDS was not a major issue outside of “at-risk” groups in the United States, was the correct one.

I grew up as part of a generation that was taught about HIV-AIDS in a very apocalyptic manner. One of my health teachers even suggested that HIV-AIDS might lead to the extinction of the human race. When I saw Fumento make his case on a local public affairs television show, it was clear to me that despite everything I’d been told, he was probably correct. To counter his facts and figures the other guests appealed to anecdotes and vague predictions of the future.

So I noticed today that on March 16th, Fumento published Panic Never Helped Any Pandemic And Won’t Start Now:

COVID-19 is just the latest, albeit the most extreme, in a long series of epidemic hysterias I have covered going back to the “heterosexual AIDS explosion” (“Now No One is Safe from AIDS”) of the 1980s, avian flu, Ebola I and Ebola II, the Zika virus and others. They are known scientifically as “mass psychogenic illness,” and even more specifically as “moral panic” – the same type of hysteria that led to centuries of witch hunts.

Thus I was writing such articles as “Hysteria, Thy Name Is SARS” in 2003 while highly respected journals such as the New Scientist were screaming “SARS Could Eventually Kill Millions.” It ultimately killed only 774, and zero Americans, before simply disappearing in a hot July.

Yes, identified cases are still going up (albeit at a slower rate than before, per Farr’s Law), but that may just be an artifact. Indeed, it’s possible the epidemic is coming close to a worldwide plateau – in real terms, at least. The hint is in the category of “serious and critical cases.” It peaked in late February, with a steady decline to less than half that number. This in and of itself good news, of course. But why?

This time Fumento’s prediction was wrong:


What’s going on here? Fumento clearly knows a lot about the spread of infectious disease. He has a historical perspective. But perhaps he has too much? I’m old enough to remember the 1990s Ebola scare, SARS, H1N1, and, the second Ebola scare. It is entirely true to assert that these were sensationalized by the press. For various reasons, all of these outbreaks did not spread into a very lethal pandemic.

COVID-19 seems to be in a different category. Fumento talks about SARS and H1N1. It is important to remember that China did not shut-down in the way it did for COVID-19. They perceived it to be different, and it was. The best of models often don’t plan out. That’s why my own early alarmism was driven by the reaction of the Chinese authorities in Hubei. They clearly thought this was very dangerous.

I still think there is room to dissent from excessive panic and the hyperventilating of the press and its amen corner among the cultural elites. But it needs to be done calmly and judiciously.

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17 thoughts on “COVID-19, another panic?

  1. As a nucleus for another Hong Kong, the Wuhan Pneumonia was a danger to the ruling class.

    As a virus, no.

    The next target? Iran – remember mass graves? Now they are in Central Park!!

    https://metro.co.uk/2020/04/06/nyc-begin-burying-bodies-mass-graves-dug-public-parks-12517337/

    The High Preists of Twitter, yourself included, fanned the flames of the panic by hypothesizing that this was an as never before seen Hollywood apocalypse virus and that folks shouldn’t even touch their own face.

    Fine. The Twitterati as a class are reprobates. But they shut off the economy for some reason – probably as an instinctual power play. That will leave a mark!

    All for the common cold that could have been mitigated by the voluntary wearing of home made masks by the panicked, and the mandatory wearing of masks by coughers and sneezers – for couple of billion in cost WORLDWIDE!

    Worry not, this too will be memory holed! Technotyranny is just getting started!

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  2. The episode this reminds me the most of is the Eyjafjallajökull eruption.

    Based on models, European and transatlantic air travel was shut down. After a week — and Virgin atlantic running a jet into the modeled clouds with no damage — people realized the models were wrong and there wasn’t significant amount of dust in the air.

    it was obvious to anyone who looked up into the sky. Or even looked at pictures of the volcano eruption.

    All models are wrong, some are useful,, and in this case the Imperial College models have triggered something far worse than a pandemic.

    https://ftalphaville.ft.com/2020/04/04/1586015208000/Imperial-s-Neil-Ferguson—We-don-t-have-a-clear-exit-strategy-/

    Again he believes 2-3% of the UK may have been exposed. We’ll see if that figure is off by 10x as has most of his guesses. Look at the Eton College study on swine flu — 100% infection rate, almost 100% asymptotic.

    In addition to the Chinese Communist party willing do anything to avoid a regime change, the other factor in China locking in its citizens was to prevent some 350M people moving around during the new year.

    The only institution that has come out of this looking okay (in the US) is the federal reserve. Sweden is the only Western county not to lose its collective bowels. At least we know the toilet paper shortages were needed.

    And let’s revisit the climate debate. In the US, Louisiana is clearly showing signs of large amounts of disease spreading. Florida, Texas, California, Arizona are not. I’m still waiting for the large amount of deaths in Indonesia. We’ll see about India and Pakistan.

    There will be an epidemic from Asia that kills 25% of people infected. This ain’t it, and that has been clear to everyone since January. To quote Dr. Fauci, the impact of this is like a severe influenza.

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  3. This has been an unexpectedly highly transmissive (not contagious) disease.

    Then everything depends on morbidity, critical cases, & medical facilities available

    The examples of Wuhan, Italy, Iran, Ecuador, Indonesia etc are very alarming

    I think it was worth all the alarmisms as long as the alarm calls were acted upon & planning was done (by acted upon, I don’t mean banging plates and flashing torchlights)

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  4. What I meant, when I said that Covid-19 is highly transmissive:

    These are the numbers arising due to the Delhi cluster in a single state (Tamil Nadu):

    Total tested:1630

    Tot positive: 631
    Tot negative: 961
    Tot pending : 33

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  5. “This time Fumento’s prediction was wrong:”

    Of course it was wrong. It was obvious to anyone in mid-January that the disease was spreading about as fast as the old H1N1 flu, but was much deadlier. It was also obvious in mid-March that there were many reasons for cases to increase; not one for them to decline. The fact China, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan had a much better response than the Western countries should not have consoled anyone. It is bizarre that it did.

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  6. From the description on Amazon he was also wrong with HIV. The description claims the prevalence in Africa was greatly overstated, yet the present day rate of infection in a lot of Southern and Eastern African countries is 10-25%, and that’s with modern antiviral treatments and prevention cocktails.

    Seems like he was really only right about HIV in America– a broken clock can be right twice a day.

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  7. HIV spread in Africa because of contaminated needles in hospitals I don’t think Fumento claimed it couldn’t

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  8. I thought the same during the early assurances that Corona virus was not something we should worry much about in the US.

    Seeing what the Chinese were doing in contrast to what they were saying convinced me it could be more serious than anything I had seen before.

    Ebola and AIDS never worried me personally. My chances of getting either were close to zero. This, on the other hand, …

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  9. Afterthought and Charlie can both move to Massachusetts and see if they feel the same way. Estimate for late March is 5% infected despite one of earliest shut-downs.

    On the ground we don’t even test mild symptoms anymore. No reagent. 4 day turn around. No point. Local Funeral Homes reporting 2-3x normal deceased. Waiting for antibody test.

    Fumento book aged OK. 2017 CDC figures show 25% heterosexual transmission. Vast majority AA in the south. Changing social behavior is hard.

    Oh. And just an update for your “summer slowdown”. It’s not going away this summer. National Academies of Sciences Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats tell White House warmer weather unlikely to impede the spread of COVID19.
    https://www.nap.edu/read/25771/chapter/1#6

    Guess you all missed that one.

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  10. Guess you all missed that one.

    did you actually read it? it basically reviews all the papers i read + some preliminary unpublished (preprinted) work. it’s pretty short.

    the takeaway is straightforward: no one knows and they’re very uncertain.

    no idea why “not knowing” means that weather can’t have an effect.

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  11. Updated figures for transmission from Delhi cluster event in state of Tamil Nadu (again this is just 1 state but the numbers would be accurate because for some reason Tamil Nadu are doing extensive testing for this cluster outbreak unlike other cases where testing is done only if strict criteria is met)

    total attended from Tamil Nadu : 1,480 people

    tested positive (direct attendees) : 554 people

    samples of contacts rendered positive : 188 people

    attendees from Tamil Nadu who tested negative : 926 people

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  12. Obviously, we’ll know much better around 2022 or so, and anything written right now is just a wild ass guess.

    There is a lot of selection bias in the data from the HCWs because people who are asymptomatic or very mildly ill are typically not going to seek treatment, and thus are vastly undercounted. I think that COVID-19 is more transmissible (higher R0) than thought because of this, and less lethal (around 1% CFR). My opinions on this are formed from looking at Icelandic data. Diamond Princess data is useful, too, but that demographic is on the older side. At any rate, here is a link to Icelandic data:

    https://www.covid.is/data

    As of today, 6 dead, 688 recovered for a CFR of 0.86%.

    The main concern I have at this time is that the disease seems to come and go in many people, which raises concerns as to whether or not immunity conferred from a vaccine or recovering from the illness itself could be long-lasting. These links describe what I’m talking about in more detail:

    https://www.scmp.com/news/china/science/article/3078840/coronavirus-low-antibody-levels-raise-questions-about
    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-09/coronavirus-may-reactivate-in-cured-patients-korean-cdc-says?

    FWIW, I think that I have now recovered (after 3 weeks!) from my own COVID-19 illness, but the disease with me has come and gone so many times (fever coming and going) that I’m not sure. My experience with it – very mild, but very lengthy illness. The most annoying thing is that I can’t taste hot sauce anymore.

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  13. @skid, right, lots of unknowns, though it may not take that long.
    The best we can probably do on prevalence right is try to estimate the actual cases from deaths, after adjusting for undercounting of deaths, from IFRs in well studied and characterized samples which have run for a while and have massive seralogical+PCR testing.

    One such of these that has got a lot of press in the past couple days is the Gangelt study from Germany – https://twitter.com/Gurdur/status/1248245914474409985. 500 people out of 12.5k inhabitants, but not selected for symptoms. “14% test positive for #SARSCoV2 IgG, spec. >,99 %. Serological test. additionally @ 2% test positive for acute SARS-CoV-2 infection.” (e.g. 14% had SARS-CoV-2; 2% currently have it). IFR of 0.37 %.

    Another is the comprehensive study of Chinese “PCR-confirmed cases in international residents repatriated from China”- https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-03-comprehensive-covid-hospitalisation-death-countries.html – which has given good age stratified estimates, that maps to about 0.66% over China’s age structure. Though this can go to as high as 1.38% under the most aged populations (http://www.uni-goettingen.de/en/606540.html). This may be a systematic overestimate by 2-4x if the number of cases with mild symptoms is greater than they understand (further under-counting of 2.5x would probably get close to the Gangelt rates).

    As a comment, John Ioannidis estimate was 0.125% IFR from Diamond Princess data, and his proviso was that “Adding these extra sources of uncertainty, reasonable estimates for the case fatality ratio in the general U.S. population vary from 0.05% to 1%”, so a median reasonable estimate of 0.5% IFR.

    At the moment I’d say it seems to line up that he will be closer to being correct than the opposite crowd (that thought IFRs were 2-10%, that confirmed cases were close to actual cases and that if there was any under-counting of infection it would be more than balanced out by the effects under-counting of deaths and death lag to infection).

    (The whole idea of “It’s at 50% and the infections that have resulted in death are all done” is probably something we already know is wrong, but possibly may be slightly closer to reality, once all is said and done, than “It’s at 0.001% and the death fraction of that 0.001% isn’t nearly complete”).

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  14. As an addendum to my previous post, thought of a way we could estimate a possible upper bound of death rate from coronavirus in the US.

    The limiting assumption would be that the relative death rates in the Chinese study linked up-thread are accurate (https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-03-comprehensive-covid-hospitalisation-death-countries.html). So even if they’ve got the probability of death following infection wrong, for their sample, it’s relatively correct for each age class.

    (One reason to trust that age structure is that it’s pretty similar to flu, so it’s not unexpected to map to another respiratory disease, and as far as I know it’s predication maps well to age distribution of reported deaths so far in NE USA and UK, if anything slightly under-weighting the proportion of the burden on the elderly.)

    If you then set deaths in the 80+ category to 100% (maximum limit), then relative death probability would be 0-9 – 0.02%, 10-19 – 0.09%, 20-29- 0.40%, 30-39- 1.08%, 40-49 – 2.06%, 50-59 – 7.63%, 60-69 – 24.74%, 70-79 – 54.87%.

    Then adjust by US demographics, and you’d come to an overall population IFR of 12%. So this is the absolute possible upper limit, assuming the limiting assumption that the risk by age is well understood, even if overall rates by age are not. (And 35% of 80+ dying, you’d come to an IFR of 4%.)

    To interpolate by different age structures for different countries, you could adjust by using the relative age adjusted expected IFR’s from the Bommer and Vollmer paper above sourced from the Chinese study and adjusted for age (http://www.uni-goettingen.de/en/606540.html).

    That would produce a range of population IFRs that, in the most extreme level of fatality among the elderly (which is already contradicted by reality) would range from 20% in Japan and 17% in Italy, to 3.6% in Pakistan and 5% in India.

    On a slightly more empirically founded note, you could use the relative demographically adjusted IFR from the Gangelt study (where IFR was 0.37%), and then map that to Bommer and Vollmer’s country IFRs, with the assumption that Gangelt is representative in age distribution for Germany (if it were slightly older or younger, that would slightly alter things). That would find you pop. IFRs ranging from 0.46% Japan, 0.39% Italy, down to 0.08% Pakistan and 0.12% India, via 0.27% USA.

    Full table: https://imgur.com/a/lvlzBF1

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