The coronavirus pandemic has done something that few things in our history have ever done, even wartime–wipe out our sense of normality. For much of the spring, some people have wondered why we are closing schools and businesses, calling off large events and all but eliminating nonessential travel. After all, they say, it’s no different from the flu.
Vox recently put together a video that shows why this argument isn’t just false, but dangerous. Watch here.
The basic measure of how contagious a disease can get is known as the basic reproduction number, or R0. Experts have learned enough about coronavirus to find out that its R0 is, at the very least, anywhere from 2 to 2.5–at least double that of the flu’s 1.3.
At that rate, if one person infects two other people with COVID-19 and those people infect two others, as many as 2,000 people could be infected after ten rounds. Additionally, at least 20 percent of coronavirus cases require hospitalization. Not even the most robust health care system could handle such a load, as has been painfully demonstrated in Italy and Spain.
This context is needed to explain why a man who was once one of the world’s foremost experts on infectious diseases seems to have lost his marbles. He would have us believe that the only way to wipe out coronavirus is to let the disease spread.
Knut Wittkowski spent 20 years as head of the Department of Biostatics, Epidemiology and Research Design at Rockefeller University, one of the oldest and most respected biomedical research institutes in the world. Before then, he spent 15 years working on the epidemiology of HIV. In other words, on paper Wittkowski should know how dangerous a disease like coronavirus really is.
The main reason we’ve had to endure such heavy-handed social distancing measures is because they’re intended to “flatten the curve” by slowing the spread of coronavirus and easing the burden on hospitals. But Wittkowski claims these measures actually do more harm than good because “when you flatten the curve, you also prolong, to widen it, and it takes more time”–more time than is defensible.
This would be laughable if it wasn’t so dangerous. Anyone who knows anything about infectious diseases and pandemics has almost certainly looked at how Philadelphia and St. Louis differed in their handling of the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic. For those who don’t recall, Philadelphia held a giant Liberty Loan parade in September 1918 to raise money for the final push in World War I. In so doing, Philadelphia public health officials brushed off early signs that a second wave of the flu was building.
In contrast, St. Louis not only called its parade off amid early signs that the second wave was underway, but closed schools and churches and severely limited streetcar capacity. The contrast could not be more stark. Within three days of 200,000 people jamming downtown Philadelphia for a parade, every hospital bed in what was then the nation’s third-largest city was full–a situation not unlike what we’re now seeing in Italy and Spain. Ultimately, 12,000 people died in Philadelphia over the next six weeks, compared to only 700 in St. Louis.
It’s inconceivable that Wittkowski didn’t study this during his days as a university student in Germany. In light of this, for him to even suggest flattening the curve doesn’t work is beyond believability. This case alone should prove that even if flattening the curve keeps a disease in circulation longer, it gives hospitals enough breathing space to treat everyone.
It went downhill from there. While Wittkowski rightly stated that the only long-term way to wipe out such a contagious disease is via herd immunity, the way he suggested doing so is breathtakingly dangerous. He argued that schools should have stayed open so kids could mingle together. That way, he said, we would “get herd immunity as fast as possible.” During that time, he argued, elderly people should be quarantined and nursing homes closed for up to four weeks.
What Wittkowski forgets is that such a strategy would still endanger a lot of immuno-compromised people who aren’t senior citizens. If Wittkowski had his way, one of my longtime friends, a liver transplant recipient in Virginia, would be a sitting duck. Ditto for another friend of mine, a Type I diabetic in Alabama. It is beyond belief that a respected infectious disease expert would even suggest this.
Looking at this, the closest parallel one can draw is to Peter Duesberg, who singlehandedly torpedoed his reputation as one of the world’s foremost cancer researchers by claiming that HIV is harmless, and that AIDS is caused by recreational drug use. He managed to wangle his way onto an AIDS advisory panel in South Africa in 2009, and is blamed for denying thousands of people access to anti-viral drugs. Due to this, some 330,000 people died when they could have easily gotten treatment that would have saved their lives.
We can only hope that Wittkowski doesn’t get the ear of policymakers in the manner that Duesberg did. After all, if we followed his advice, coronavirus could potentially become a worldwide scourge not unlike what smallpox once was. It took over 180 years to wipe out smallpox after Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine for it. There is no reason it should take even a fraction of that time for us to wipe out coronavirus.
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