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Science under attack in UK for ‘apocalyptic’ COVID-19 claims

Top scientists have come under attack in the United Kingdom for “apocalyptic” COVID-19 claims and “dodgy data”  that The Telegraph says have undermined faith in vaccines and prompted unnecessary shutdowns. This is a disquieting development for a country that punches above its weight in science and prides itself on world-class research.

On 23 December 2021, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote in The Telegraph that while Professor Neil Ferguson's team forecast thousands of deaths a day from omicron, new evidence suggested it may be far milder, and incorrect claims was eroding public faith. According to Evans-Pritchard:

“The COVID modellers at Imperial College have begun to back down. About time too. Over the past few weeks, they have made extreme claims about the omicron variant that cannot be fully justified by fundamental science, let alone by clinical observation.

“Academic etiquette restrains direct criticism, but immunologists say privately that Professor Neil Ferguson and his team breached a cardinal rule by inferring rates of hospitalisation, severe disease, and death from waning antibodies, and by extrapolating from infections that break through the first line of vaccine defence.

“The rest are entitled to question whether they can legitimately do this. And we may certainly question whether they should be putting out terrifying claims of up to 5,000 deaths a day based on antibody counts.”

“It is bad science and I think theyʼre being irresponsible. They have a duty to reflect the true risks but this is just headline grabbing,” said Dr Clive Dix, former chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce.

Scientifically influential

According to The Telegraph: “Britain is the COVID laboratory of the developed world, and what Imperial says right now has global resonance. Its dire warnings are contributing to some European countries imposing full or partial Christmas lockdowns.”

Governments are so alarmed by the possibility that healthcare systems might collapse under pressure that they have neglected the more probable outcome – that omicron will largely bounce off a population where almost everybody has cell immunity from vaccines or past infection.

“To talk of 5,000 deaths a day is a very high number. It is risky to push apocalyptic scenarios that are highly unlikely to happen,” Professor Francois Balloux, director of the University College London’s UCL Genetics Institute, told The Telegraph.

“What I am more worried about is a loss of trust in governments and public institutions for crying wolf. The mood is changing everywhere."

Balloux, who used to work with the Imperial team, said he understood why they had focused on neutralising antibodies: they are easy to measure and tell you how well the front-line fighters are doing against infection. But this has led to great confusion.

The second line of defence, what really matters for serious illness, comes from B and T cell memory – either from jabs or prior illness. This carries on long after antibodies are no longer circulating in the blood. Cell memory is much harder to measure but is known to last much longer. “Cellular memory is still there for omicron and remains intact,” Balloux said.

The Telegraph writes that University of Cape Town researchers found double-jabbed patients still had 70% of the CD4 T cell response against omicron, and full CD8 protection, despite the mutations.

“T cells are holding out against omicron, and the data is very consistent across vaccines,” they told the US magazine Science. “From everything we know about T cells, this is what they do – control a virus once youʼve been infected. So this is their time to shine.”

Incorrect assertions

However, says journalist Evans-Pritchard, you would not know this from the claims by Ferguson and his team that omicron “largely evades immunity”, even if they are technically within their rights to use this construction.

Imperial might struggle to substantiate their initial warning that a 4.5 fold reduction in neutralising antibodies would lead to a drop in vaccine efficacy against severe disease. “They certainly cannot quantify hospital figures or project extreme death rates without taking into account the full effects of cell memory, which they fail to do.”

Their assertion that vaccine efficacy for double-jabbers ranges from zero to 20% was misleading. Nor can they legitimately assert that there is no evidence of omicron being less severe than delta, according to The Telegraph, since their sample was vanishingly small, the timeline was too short, and they did not know the denominator of omicron infections.

Their hospitalisation assumptions have already been undermined by better data from Danish hospitals. The emerging ratios are a small fraction of the Imperial claims.

Dix said it was inexplicable that the NHS was not publishing daily data giving the exact percentage of those in hospital with omicron by vaccine status, comorbidities, and whether they were admitted for COVID or for another reason, writes Evans-Pritchard: “They should publish the numbers needing oxygen, and those going onto critical care, as other countries do.” This was not difficult and would make a huge difference to public confidence.

Omicron is less dangerous than delta

The global picture emerging from lab studies is not only that cell memory works like a charm, but that omicron may be inherently less dangerous than delta, The Telegraph continues.

Research by the Cambridge virologist Ravi Gupta found that the omicron spike protein cleaves far less efficiently than earlier variants, and replicates most in the upper respiratory tract rather than in the lungs where it does most damage.

Balloux said the sketchy clinical evidence from South Africa, Denmark, Australia and London is that the case fatality rate of omicron for populations with broad immunity is 25 to 30 times lower than the earlier pre-vaccinated waves.

There is a 90% drop in hospitalisation rates, and a further two-thirds drop in death rates after admission. This takes it down to the levels of seasonal flu.

Find the link to the full story in The Telegraph below.

 

‘Dodgy data’ used in push for tighter COVID restrictions

On 25 December, Edward Malnick wrote in The Telegraph that one of Britain’s most senior health advisers had been accused of disseminating “dodgy data” that inflated the potential risk of omicron. According to the article:

“Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) – formerly Public Health England – is understood to have been the source of a contested claim by Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, that there is typically a 17-day lag between patients becoming infected and requiring hospitalisation.

“However, independent experts pointed to Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, which suggested an average delay of nine or 10 days.”

According to The Telegraph, Javid’s claim was seen as an attempt to strengthen the case for urgent new COVID-19 restrictions, on the basis that omicron could drive a major spike in hospitalisations. Harries had claimed that omicron was “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic”.

Meanwhile, the latest UKHSA data showed that people infected with omicron were 50% to 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital than with delta.

Simon Briscoe, a former Treasury statistician, said that the 17-day figure appeared to be either a “deliberate statistical sleight of hand designed to deceive, or incompetence”. If deliberate, he told The Telegraph, it seemed that officials were “in effect trying to buy time, as officials realise that data of rising hospitalisations is needed to justify lockdown”.

Lack of support for future COVID curbs

Mark Harper, chair of the COVID Recovery Group, said: “COVID restrictions damage people’s lives, livelihoods and mental well-being. So it’s really important that the debate about them is based on solid data.

“Serious questions need to be asked if senior health advisers are furnishing ministers with misleading figures, and failing to correct them at the earliest opportunity. Ministers also have a responsibility to ask detailed questions to ensure they aren’t using dodgy data.”

Harries conveyed the 17-day figure to Javid in a telephone call in the week before Christmas. It was understood by The Telegraph to have been presented as an estimate, based largely on COVID-19 studies published in 2020 and early 2021 – before omicron.

Writing the previous week in an article published by The Telegraph, which the paper said appeared to lay the groundwork for more restrictions, Javid stated: “Sadly, seven people have died with omicron and 85 people are in hospital with confirmed omicron, but there are likely to be a lot more.

“And we know that the typical time between infection and hospitalisation is 17 days, so today’s hospital numbers reflect infections that took place more than two weeks ago when omicron was here in much smaller numbers and represented fewer than 1% of infections.”

Officials at the UKHSA now believe that the gap between infections and hospitalisations is about 12 days. Briscoe said that ONS data suggested a lag of between one and two weeks.

According to The Telegraph, Harries previously come under fire for trying to justify a decision to stop routine testing in March 2020 by claiming that it was “not an appropriate intervention”.

A UKHSA spokesman said: “Individual responses to infection with COVID-19 vary widely according to a range of factors including age and health, and we continue to monitor the potential impact of the omicron variant as more data becomes available. Wider data on COVID-19 clearly indicates that there can be a substantial lag between infection and hospitalisation.”

Find the link to the full story in The Telegraph below.

 

Top scientists reject accusations of 'doomsday' warnings

Two leading UK government scientists defended their analysis of the threat posed by the omicron variant, dismissing critics who have dubbed scientific warnings "doomsday" scenarios, wrote Ben Riley-Smith for The Telegraph on 24 December.

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of UKHSA, insisted that omicron remained a "serious threat" despite new data showing a lower hospitalisation risk than other variants.

Sir Patrick Vallance, government's chief scientific adviser, insisted that epidemiological modellers do not “only model the worst outcome” in the wake of a report warning that hospitalisations could peak between 3,000 and 10,000 a day without new restrictions.

Infectious disease experts and NHS representatives warned that the speed with which omicron was spreading within the UK meant that it could still create significant new pressure on the health service given the volume of cases emerging.

Speaking on BBC Radio Four's Today programme, Harries defended her previous warnings that omicron was "probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic", citing the “quite staggering” speed of spread compared to previous variants.

This despite a just-release analysis from the UKHSA, which found that people catching omicron were between 31% and 45% less likely to go to A&E, and between 50% and 70% less likely to be admitted to hospital for treatment compared to previous variants.

“I think there's a glimmer of Christmas hope in the findings that we published yesterday, but it definitely isn't yet at the point where we could downgrade that serious threat,” Harries said. She repeated the findings but said that it was “preliminary analysis” from “very small numbers of cases”, and appeared to warn against over-interpreting the findings at this stage.

Meanwhile, said The Telegraph, Sir Patrick defended the “the unenviable task” of epidemiological modellers during the omicron outbreak as he said it was not their job “to take a particular policy stance or to either spread gloom or give Panglossian optimism”.

The comments appeared to respond to criticism of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies’ (Sage) omicron modelling as fear-provoking, with Sir Patrick warning those participating in the debate “need to consider all the data in the round, not only those parts that fit an argument while ignoring the rest”.

A statement from the SPI-M-O, a group of scientists who report to Sage, on 18 December warned hospitalisations could peak between 3,000 and 10,000 a day and deaths at between 600 and 6,000 a day based on models assuming no new restrictions were introduced.

Find the link to the full story in The Telegraph below.

 

Telegraph story – Prof Lockdown's 'apocalyptic' omicron claims undermine faith in vaccines and have fuelled unnecessary shutdowns (Restricted access)

 

Telegraph story – ‘Dodgy data’ used in push for tighter COVID restrictions threat (Restricted access)

 

Telegraph story – Top scientists reject accusations of issuing 'doomsday' warnings over omicron threat (Restricted access)

 

See also from the MedicalBrief archives:

 

Discovery Health’s large real-world analysis of Omicron

 

So far, milder disease seen with Omicron, with shorter hospital stays — SA hospitals analysis

 

Two-dose vaccines induce lower antibodies against Omicron — Oxford study

 

State of play with Omicron – The discovery, the spread, the politics, and the science

 

 

 

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