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Are we overreacting to COVID-19? | Munk Debates

EPISODE #42

Are we overreacting to COVID-19?

Be it Resolved, the scientific community has overreacted to the threat of COVID-19 and the data prove it.

Guests
Jay Bhattacharya
Sten Vermund

About this episode

Six months into a global pandemic and 63,000 scientific papers later, scientists and medical researchers continue to be perplexed by COVID-19. There are many unknowns with the virus, and one of the most controversial is how deadly it really is. Since the beginning of the pandemic, leading health institutions such as the World Health Organization and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases have warned that COVID-19 is much more dangerous than the seasonal flu and that, without expansive public health measures, millions of people around the world could die from the virus. But there are some in the scientific community who disagree. And they say they have the data to prove it. Antibody testing of large population groups indicates that we could be grossly underestimating the number of people who have been infected by the virus – which means we are dramatically overestimating the death rate. Given these findings, they question whether sweeping public health controls are the way to approach a possible second wave of COVID-19 this autumn.

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Guests

Jay Bhattacharya

"The lockdowns, as a result of the scientific overreaction to COVID, have had an enormous deleterious health effect."

Jay Bhattacharya

"The lockdowns, as a result of the scientific overreaction to COVID, have had an enormous deleterious health effect."

Jay Bhattacharya is a Professor of Medicine at Stanford University. He is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economics Research, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, and at the Stanford Freeman Spogli Institute. He holds courtesy appointments as Professor in Economics and in Health Research and Policy. He directs the Stanford Center on the Demography of Health and Aging. Dr. Bhattacharya’s research focuses on the economics of health care around the world with a particular emphasis on the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. Dr. Bhattacharya’s peer-reviewed research has been published in economics, statistics, legal, medical, public health, and health policy journals. He holds an MD and PhD in economics from Stanford University.

Sten Vermund

"Our goal should be pandemic control so we can return to normal. I don't think letting the transmission run amok is going to get us anywhere."

Sten Vermund

"Our goal should be pandemic control so we can return to normal. I don't think letting the transmission run amok is going to get us anywhere."

Dr. Vermund serves as Dean of the Yale School of Public Health, Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health, and Professor of Pediatrics, Yale School of Medicine. His research has focused on health care access in low income nations, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, human papillomavirus- mediated cervical pathogenesis, and prevention of HIV transmission. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Show Notes

To understand the true prevalence of COVID-19 infections in the United States, Jay Bhattacharya has recently undertaken several seroprevalence studies (the study of antibodies in a population). You can read about his study of Santa Clara County in California here and his study of 5,600 Major League Baseball employees here.
 
Sten Vermund has published numerous scholarly studies on infectious diseases, which you can view here.
 
During the debate both Jay and Sten speak about COVID-19’s “infection fatality rate” (IFR). IFR is one of the most important characteristics of an infectious disease in determining its severity. It is basically the ultimate measure of a disease’s ability to cause death. You can learn more about IFR and how it is estimated here.  In the debate, both Jay and Sten agree that the current estimates of the COVID-19 infection fatality rates are overestimated and therefore misleading. To learn more, read Jay’s Wall Street Journal op ed.
 
During the debate, Sten points out that between March and May of 2020 there was a 19 per cent excess death rate in the United States.  Excess death rates refer to the difference between the observed numbers of deaths in specific time period and expected number of deaths in the same time period. According to Sten, the excess rates are probably 28 per cent higher than the official deaths tally of COVID-19 because so many cases are not reported. This Nature.com article supports this view.
 
Jay argues that part of the science community’s overreaction to COVID-19 has been censorship of unpopular scientific views. Jay refers to an op ed in the New York Times by Michael Eisen that expresses concern about how scientific study pre-prints are being released before they are peer reviewed, and calling for the establishment of a scientific “rapid review” service for pre-prints.
 
One of the scientists Jay identifies as having an unorthodox view on COVID-19 is Gabriela Gomez, She speaks about her research on herd immunity occurring when as little as ten percent of the population has been infected with the virus here and you can read her research article here.
 
Sten and Jay disagree with each other about the feasibility of isolating the most vulnerable members of society, particularly the elderly, while letting the rest of the population continue to live normally. Sten refers to a New York Times article by David Katz which supports the strategy of “vertical interdiction”, where those over 60 are “preferentially protected.”
 
Jay refers to the recent release of findings from a Public Health England study that found negligible spread among one million students who returned to school in June.
 
During the debate Jay identifies Sweden’s approach to COVID-19 as a model for the world, while Sten argues it represents a failed strategy. You can decide for yourself by listening to the Munk Debate, Be it resolved, Sweden is the model for how to fight this pandemic and the next.

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