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March 25, 2020

Scientific advice and politics

We will only know well after the Covid-19 crisis what sort of measures were successful and why. South Korea and Japan recovered without strict confinement, while European countries have imposed confinement measures of varying strictness, African countries just started with confinement measures but have no chance of strict enforcement, and Donald Trump is considering to lift social-distancing measures altogether.

How much is scientific advice worth in politics? There are still many unknowns about the virus, how it spreads and why it kills in certain hotspots more than in others. Politics is flying blind.  

Will public opinion back the leaders? The virus is an invisible threat for many. Doctors in Bergamo send pictures through social media to remind people what it feels like to be in an a hospital there. There are queues for funerals. These stories inform the views of people in their solitary confinement back home.

The scientific committee Emmanuel Macron installed just two weeks ago is already being challenged by politicians and journalists as week two of the confinement starts. Last night the committee, led by Jean-François Delfraissy, recommended to extend the confinement until end-April as the death toll rose by 240 to 1100 yesterday. This means six more weeks in confinement. Macron also installed a second scientific committee under the leadership of Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who discovered the HIV virus. This new committee is to advise the health minister on more operational questions such as testing and how to use innovative methods to track people in contact with an infected patient. The two committees are meant to be complementary to each other, but one can easily see how they could end up with different and opposing advice. The more testing methods are available, the more France could afford a scenario like that in South Korea, where emphasis was on testing rather than confinement.

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March 25, 2020

Why the Oxford study is so useful

Epidemic models are like economic models. As the statistician George Box once remarked, all models are wrong but some are useful. A new model, by Oxford’s Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Disease group, is almost certainly wrong but it is useful because it challenges the status-quo consensus. The Oxford group believes that up to 80% of the population may already have been infected and have built up an immune response to the virus. This calls for widespread testing for Covid-19 antibodies. Such a test would pick out anybody who caught the virus but did not develop symptoms. If the hypothesis were true, it would imply a mortality rate of under 0.01%. The model flatly contradicts the alarmist forecasts by Imperial College, which warned about an uncontrolled spread of the disease. 

We note that epidemology has hit its Keynesianism-versus-Monetarism moment. Our own view is agnostic and guided by the principle that, when faced with catastrophic consequences under extreme uncertainty, policy should follow the precautionary principle. But this is not an explicit endorsement of one model over another. We still do not know enough about the virus to make an informed choice. The Oxford model, for example, does not explain the presence of hotspots like Bergamo, where the mortality rate is higher than by a factor of 100. 

Donald Trump goes with his own gut instinct, and ignores all scientific advice. He hinted at lifting all restrictions by Easter. This gamble can kill his presidency. Or it could save it. We don’t know, just as we cannot rule out either that the Oxford team may turn out to be correct. But at least their hypothesis is testable.

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