We missed out, the other day, on an absolutely fascinating and contrarian report from the Financial Times, featuring a new Oxford University study that says, in effect, that the nations of the world might be engaged in a mass act of self harm….. for nothing:
“The new coronavirus may already have infected far more people in the UK than scientists had previously estimated — perhaps as much as half the population — according to modelling by researchers at the University of Oxford.
The modelling by Oxford’s Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Disease group indicates that Covid-19 reached the UK by mid-January at the latest. Like many emerging infections, it spread invisibly for more than a month before the first transmissions within the UK were officially recorded at the end of February.
The research presents a very different view of the epidemic to the modelling at Imperial College London, which has strongly influenced government policy. “I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” said Prof Gupta.“
The implications, if this were true, are stunning:
“What if half of the British population is already infected with coronavirus? What if the percentage of infected people who need hospitalization for COVID-19 is actually teeny tiny because, unbeknownst to us, the overall infected population is actually enormously large? If half of Great Britain is already infected, the country is already well on its way to acquiring herd immunity, which means they may be seeing the worst of the epidemic right now. There’s no true “mass casualty” scenario as the virus spreads. It’s already spread. And it turns out it’s harmless in virtually everyone who gets it.”
To be fair, those are huge questions, and there’s no way to know what the answers are, which is why the authors of the study do not criticise the UK Government for locking that country down – any study might be wrong, after all.
The good news, though, is if that study is correct, then we might actually be experiencing the very worst of the epidemic right now, at this moment, which would mean that the lockdowns could end very soon and normal life can resume, thank god. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I’m getting heartily sick of talking about this thing every single day. It’s like Brexit, except a million times worse.
But, even as a layman, there are obvious questions – and the biggest one is around the death rates. If you assume that the Oxford figures are correct, and half the UK has already had it, then something absolutely bananas, that nobody can explain, is happening in Italy and Spain. If half of the UK – some 35 million people – have already been infected, then it’s reasonable to assume similar, or worse, figures in Italy – which has a smaller population. So how then do you explain 7,000 deaths in Italy and 3,400 in Spain versus only 465 in the UK?
The sums, to be blunt about it, don’t add up. You might make a demographic argument and note that the Italian and Spanish populations are older, and more susceptible, but it’s not as if the UK or Ireland are short of pensioners. The most obvious explanation is the one sitting right in front of us – that the Oxford study is wrong, and that the virus has spread much more widely in Italy than in the UK or Ireland, for the moment.
Meanwhile, in the USA, the trajectory seems suddenly, and seriously, upwards:
The United States has registered more than 1,000 COVID-19 deaths as the country confirmed more than 69,000 cases.
The US Senate passed a sweeping $2 trillion measure to aid workers, businesses, and the healthcare system. It has gone back to the lower house for approval.
Again, the US figures, with doctors there reporting an absolute surge in the demand for respiratory and ICU beds, are much more consistent with the experience of Italy and Spain than they are with a hypothetical scenario where most of us have had the virus already.
Now, the people who put these figures together are much smarter than me, and they’re probably much smarter than you, and that’s why the idea shouldn’t be discounted – but the problem is, unfortunately, that they simply don’t seem to correlate with the real-world experiences that we can see happening all around us.
But maybe there’s another explanation for the Italian/Spanish anomaly that we haven’t considered, and the Oxford figures are correct after all. Who knows.
Either way, it’s interesting, and we’ll be talking about it for decades, won’t we?