“Coronavirus Denier” or “COVID Denier”?

We have Holocaust deniers. We have climate change deniers. I’m wondering what we call the author of “Evidence over hysteria — COVID-19” (Medium deleted the heresy, but it remains available from ZeroHedge, along with a biologist’s rebuttal in disjointed Twitter form).

He marshals a lot of scientific-sounding evidence, as promised by the title. One thing that he does that we never see in our media is look at things on a per-capita basis rather than in absolute numbers:

On a per-capita basis, we shouldn’t be panicking
Every country has a different population size which skews aggregate and cumulative case comparisons. By controlling for population, you can properly weigh the number of cases in the context of the local population size. Viruses don’t acknowledge our human borders. The US population is 5.5X greater than Italy, 6X larger than South Korea, and 25% the size of China. Comparing the US total number of cases in absolute terms is rather silly.

Rank ordering based on the total number of cases shows that the US on a per-capita basis is significantly lower than the top six nations by case volume. On a 1 million citizen per-capita basis, the US moves to above mid-pack of all countries and rising, with similar case volume as Singapore (385 cases), Cyprus (75 cases), and United Kingdom(3,983 cases). This is data as of March 20th, 2020.

(Maybe he is wrong about the above because of the trajectory? The U.S. case volume is still growing exponentially, right? Or maybe it is actually close to constant, but we’re doing an exponentially increasing number of tests?)

He thinks our policymakers have it all wrong. Sample:

Closing schools is counterproductive. The economic cost for closing schools in the U.S. for four weeks could cost between $10 and $47 billion dollars (0.1–0.3% of GDP) and lead to a reduction of 6% to 19% in key health care personnel.

This is more or less in sync with the U.K., which decided to close its schools but leaves them open for the children of health care, grocery store, and similar essential adult workers.

Readers: Help me out here. Why is this COVID denier (or “coronavirus denier”) wrong? I desperately want this to be true:

Due to COVID-19’s sensitivity to UV light and heat (just like the normal influenza virus), it is very likely that it will “burn off” as humidity increases and temperatures rise.

Texas is running 1/30th the cases per capita compared to New York, so maybe this is true or maybe New York just had worse luck regarding early infectees.

His ideas at the end regarding expanding medical capacity don’t seem realistic.

COVID-19 is a significant medical threat that needs to be tackled by both finding a cure and limiting spread; however, some would argue that a country’s authoritarian response to COVID-19 helped stop the spread. Probably not. In South Korea and Taiwan, I can go to the gym and eat at a restaurant which is more than I can say about San Francisco and New York, despite a significantly lower caseload on a per-capita basis.

None of the countries the global health authorities admire for their approach issued “shelter-in-place” orders, rather they used data, measurement,and promoted common sense self-hygiene.

Does stopping air travel have a greater impact than closing all restaurants? Does closing schools reduce the infection rate by 10%? Not one policymaker has offered evidence of any of these approaches. Typically, the argument given is “out of an abundance of caution”. I didn’t know there was such a law. Let’s be frank, these acts are emotionally driven by fear, not evidence-based thinking in the process of destroying people’s lives overnight. While all of these decisions are made by elites isolated in their castles of power and ego, the shock is utterly devastating Main Street.

A friend who runs a gym will run out of cash in two weeks. A friend who is a pastor let go of half of his staff as donations fell by 60%. A waitress at my favorite breakfast place told me her family will have no income in a few days as they force the closure of restaurants. While political elites twiddle their thumbs with models and projections based on faulty assumptions, people’s lives are being destroyed with Marxian vigor. The best compromise elites can come up with is $2,000.

Does it make more sense for us to pay a tax to expand medical capacity quickly or pay the cost to our whole nation of a recession? Take the example of closing schools which will easily cost our economy $50 billion. For that single unanimous totalitarian act, we could have built 50 hospitals with 500+ beds per hospital.

If the U.S. government were to build hospitals starting right now, wouldn’t they be only half-finished by the time the Chinese, Koreans, and Taiwanese finish work on a good vaccine? And where would we find doctors and nurses to staff these new hospitals? Before the plague hit it could take three months to get an appointment with a doctor. (Example: expansion of Suburban Hospital in my old home town of Bethesda, Maryland. They started planning in 2008, broke ground around 2014, and the building was ready for use in March 2020 (just in time!).)

I am hoping that we will never figure out whether Aaron Ginn, COVID denier, was correct. If the epidemic is contained, the governors who ordered U.S. states to shut down can take credit for saving us. But Mr. Ginn might have been right and perhaps the virus died out of its own accord. Only if the epidemic is not contained can we say definitively that the coronavirus deniers were wrong. (But maybe if the virus keeps our hospitals full at a steady rate for the next 12-18 months we could also say that Mr. Ginn was wrong? Either way, let’s hope we can’t prove him wrong!)

[Update: How about the rebuttal linked to from ZeroHedge? The biologist, Bergstrom, starts by attacking Ginn for not being an epidemiologist (but the media is happy to give a platform to people without epidemiology background as long as they are suggesting additional hysteria and shutdowns (a physicist suggesting a five-week lockdown)!). Bergstrom says that the “drop in apparent growth rates” is due to a shift in testing strategy (I would expect the growth in testing capacity to move the needle in the other direction, actually). For 10, which I think is , “COVID-19 is spreading, but probably not accelerating”, Bergstrom responds with a personal attack:

I hate to ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence, but using this lie to sweep away the disaggregated data is such utter nonsense that I wonder how a silicon valley guy could make this claim by mistake.

Did he forget that it was folks in Silicon Valley who thought that Elizabeth Holmes knew more about blood testing than entire buildings full of chemistry Ph.D.s at Siemens and similar European vendors?

Bergstrom attacks Ginn for using a bell curve analogy. He ensures continued employment at his university by noting righteously that the authors of the Bell Curve book (which actually contains almost nothing related to the hateful alleged correlation between race and IQ) are to be condemned. Then he points out, that other formulae, such as log-normals and exponentials, are also found in nature. Now that Bergstrom raises this point, I don’t think that it makes a lot of sense to map a probability distribution onto a time series. But Wikipedia suggests that this observation goes back to a British epidemiologist. It does seem to be an established idea that the course of an epidemic will have a shape that is sort of like a bell curve.

(Bergstrom is a professor at University of Washington. So outrageously wrong was that one chapter about race v. IQ in the Bell Curve book that his university has decided to admit students in roughly the ratios that the book would suggest (and then the school is so interested in race that it publishes stats for 2019-2020!). African Americans are underrepresented and the Asians whom the IQ researchers say are smarter than whites are hugely overrepresented.)

I don’t think that anyone has enough information to say if Ginn is right or wrong. My gut feeling is that he is at least partially wrong due to the fact that no government anywhere in the world is doing exactly what he suggests (though the UK seems to be coming close!). But I think this rebuttal is weak and it shows that viruses, in addition to being smarter than the average human, are also smarter than the average tenured professor of biology!]

Related:

  • Ironically, the key to testing for coronavirus is the PCR machine, invented by a denier of the connection between HIV and AIDS: Kary Mullis (he died in August 2019 and therefore did not live to see his machine save entire Asian countries). Note that he might not have been able to work as a scientist in the #MeToo age. The Washington Post noted in 1998 that he “enliven[ed] his scientific lectures with slides of naked women” and “At Cetus, Mullis was a legendary character, famous less for his scientific brilliance than for his prodigious womanizing and for engaging in fisticuffs with another scientist after drinking too many margaritas at a company retreat.”
  • My favorite climate change denier, Nobel Physics laureate Ivar Giaever in a 2012 lecture
  • “Why does Russia, population 146 million, have fewer coronavirus cases than Luxembourg?” (CNN): turns out that coronavirus might be easy to contain if low- and mid-level government workers did the jobs for which they were hired to at least a basic level of competence
  • “Is Our Fight Against Coronavirus Worse Than the Disease?” (New York Times), is by an MD who seems to agree with Mr. Ginn; it is the NYT so the article also notes that our government is too small: “I fear our efforts will do little to contain the virus, because we have a resource-constrained, fragmented, perennially underfunded public health system.” (might be like our perennially underfunded public schools, whose budgets rise much faster than inflation… an article in the American Journal of Public Health: “Per-capita public health spending (inflation-adjusted) rose from $39 in 1960 to $281 in 2008”)

33 thoughts on ““Coronavirus Denier” or “COVID Denier”?

  1. “Coronavirus truther”, perhaps?

    We haven’t had a global pandemic for a while, so it’s not surprising that a lot of people have a hard time grasping what’s happening. What makes the coronavirus worse than a flu is that it’s much more contagious, it has a longer incubation time, it’s much more likely to require intensive care, and it’s more likely to be fatal.

    You’ve got quite a few friends in the medical profession, right? What are they telling you?

    When dealing with exponential growth, the argument that the problem isn’t that bad in the US because it has a relatively low number of cases per capita makes no sense at all. With a doubling time of 2.5 days, a 5.5X difference (less than three doublings) is less than a week.

    In Canada, we’ve been on Canadian-style lockdown (“if you can, stay home”) since Monday. A big chunk of the economy is basically shut down. It’s something like a wartime situation.

    • Russil: I do have a lot of doctor friends and some nurse friends. Their opinions and behavior are all over the map, suggesting that medicine is not exactly science!

      A friend who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a turbine-powered helicopter mom, is freaked out 24/7. She actually works from home at an insurance-related desk job and is not at risk personally (maybe one reason our health care system is overwhelmed is that a lot of fully trained MDs are tied up supervising the billing process so that their brothers/sisters/binary resisters in the medical profession don’t bilk the insurers).

      The near-doctors whom I teach are only slightly more worried than spring breakers in Florida.

      Friends who work in hospitals are upset that they’re likely to get this, regardless of how careful they are and even if the masks don’t run out.

      The older-than-60 medical school professors are trying to be super cautious about avoiding contact/infection.

      But really, none of them have special insight. They’re as blind as everyone else due to the fact that there is essentially no testing. (I think you have to be pretty close to death to be tested here in Massachusetts, for example.)

    • Thanks, Philip. Medical professionals in Canada are bracing for impact – up here the number of cases is doubling every four days, so unless social distancing is effective in slowing the rate of contagion, we can expect a massive surge in intensive care. Provinces are asking recently retired doctors and nurses to return to work if they’re needed.

      The number of coronavirus skeptics – those who are more worried about the economic impact of measures to fight the pandemic than the pandemic itself, and who believe that people are just being hysterical – seems to be much higher in the US than in Canada. I assume it’s because Trump and Fox News downplayed the threat. It’s exactly like the mayor from Jaws.

      Based on the numbers, the virus seems to be spreading faster in the US. I hope you all make it through okay.

    • Russil: That is a dramatic difference in infections, 15,219 for the U.S. and 846 for Canada so far (from https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20200321-sitrep-61-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=6aa18912_2 ).

      I’m not sure that Trump and Fox News can be blamed for anything. The Democrats who control the legislatures and governors offices in Washington State, California, and New York State don’t listen to Trump, do they? These states’ public health departments had the same information as Trump and they didn’t spend January ordering masks and saying that people with fevers must be quarantined.

      https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/anthony-fauci-covid-19-trump-and-staying-healthy/608554/ says that the evil/stupid Trump has done everything suggested by the smart/heroic Fauci.

    • Those numbers are from a couple days ago. Today’s numbers are 1302 confirmed cases in Canada, more than 30,000 in the US. Every two or three days, the problem doubles in size.

      I was referring to Trump’s skeptical statements on the coronavirus, rather than his lack of action. We can argue about his responsibility after things have stabilized.

    • Trebor: Thanks for that. I updated the original post. It is good to know that the editors of Medium protect us from wrongthink!

  2. Our testing is currently worthless, but should get vastly better within a month. At the same time, California, NYC, Texas are all running experiments.

    Is there any downside to waiting a month to see just how much smarter Ginn is than the scientific community?

  3. My major take away from the whole event so far is how bad logical and numerical skills are in the Twitterverse. Like everything I have read about Covid-19, this guys paper is poor and the criticisms are poor.

    • Alan: I would tend to agree with you, but the rebuttal from the tenured biology professor is not numbers- or science-based.

  4. Here’s one reason he’s wrong, full of shit or anything else you want to call him… There’s plenty of the virus going around in southern hemisphere and equatorial regions where (late) summer heat, humidity and UV aren’t doing much good.

  5. Texas is running 1/30th the cases per capita compared to New York, so maybe this is true or maybe New York just had worse luck regarding early infectees.

    Everything is bigger in Texas. Texas is literally designed for social distancing.

    This is the first Plague of the automobile era. It is fascinating to see how the big house big car culture compares to the public transit walkup flat culture.

  6. I am a little disturbed that Medium deleted the article. It is obvious that our medical authorities are not presenting us with any good cost-benefit analysis to justify their decisions. So either they don’t know what they are doing, or they are hiding some of their reasons.

    Maybe Ginn is wrong, but I like to read a range of opinions when I have doubts, and there is an incredibly large amount of uncertainty with this disease.

    • Roger: I do think that often the easiest way to understand something is to look at a challenge to prevailing wisdom. Just looking at the rebuttal, for example, I learned about Farr’s Law of bell curve-shaped graphs of new cases in epidemics. The professor says Ginn is a moron for citing to this, but Googling “Farr’s Law” reveals it to be all over the leading medical journals.

      “Farr’s Law Applied to AIDS Projections” https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/381044

      Farr’s Law of Epidemics, first promulgated in 1840 and resurrected by Brownlee in the early 1900s, states that epidemics tend to rise and fall in a roughly symmetrical pattern that can be approximated by a normal bell-shaped curve. We applied this simple law to the reported annual incidence of cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome in the United States from 1982 through 1987. The 6 years of incidence data closely fit a normal distribution that crests in late 1988 and then declines to a low point by the mid-1990s

      “Applying Farr’s Law to project the drug overdose mortality epidemic in the United States” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5005643/

      The projected data based on Farr’s Law suggests that drug overdose mortality in the United States will decline in the coming years and return to the 1980 baseline level approximately by the year 2034.

    • This is where I’m at. An awful lot of the pronouncements I see about where the pandemic is headed in America breathlessly predict deaths in the millions. But countries in Asia, with far higher populations, have already peaked, and their death counts are nowhere near those kinds of numbers. So I can’t rationalize these catastrophic predictions with the data. (I mean, I get it. Mathematically, it’s unstable, and the numbers could get away from us, but I don’t think they will, practically.) Therefore it doesn’t seem to be prudent to simultaneously stop our entire economy, and then be forced to bail it out (with much less revenue coming in), in the name of preventing a number of deaths that are basically in the range of statistical noise, among other causes. But that’s just me, I guess. I’m usually the wildman in the back of the room that is always needling IT departments about the cost/benefit of all their layers of “protection” for our endless mountains of PowerPoint meeting slides and emailed Excel spreadsheets, which hardly help us, let alone some competitor, and least of all some random hacker.

  7. I believe people are hysterical, but (1) in Italy it is spring now, plenty warm and sunny, still in the exponential phase, and (2) it’s not we can trust the official numbers, especially from totalitarian regimes. In Finland — not a totalitarian county — for instance one is tested only if (1) one is a medic or nurse, or (2) if one is admitted to hospital with symptoms. Anyone with low symptoms or asymptomatic is not being tested, so nobody actually knows how many cases there are. I do doubt Putin, Erdogan, and friends are keen to have their fragile economies destroyed and social unrest in their hands.

    My take is that we are destroying the economy to save people who would not have a long lifespan anyway (if you are over 70 with pre-existing conditions it’s not that you can expect living another 20 years spending them playing tennis or riding around on a horse). We’d be much better off massively increasing palliative care, to let people die in a painless and dignified way, and let the chips fall where they may.

    • Old people are a net drain on the economy. A great deal of economic difficulties for the young can be attributed to the transfer of wealth to programs benefitting the old, like social security and medicare. We are destroying the economy to save the people who are destroying the economy.

      What would happen to Social Security’s long term solvency if we lost 1/8th of the population over 75 and 1/25th of the population over 65 in the next year? Gruesome and morbid thoughts, but that’s what actuarial tables are all about. Sentimentality does not solve problems of political economy.

      #boomerremover

    • @jerry I am the old guy at the end of the movie, that teaches them about yhe past and teaches them not to fear getting old and dying naturally.

      @philg we are all now characters in a dystopian novel!

  8. After reading this thought-provoking article:
    https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/covid-19-coronavirus-pandemic-extremism-white-nationalism-southern-poverty-law-center-969079/
    I became totally convinced that what our nation needs is #BoomerRemover and a bailout. I promise to do both if you vote for me. I promise to nominate the corpse of Joe Biden as the next Secretary of Abundance. Here is my recovery plan:
    1. Let us put our seniors on cruise ships and get on with our lives. We should not forget to confiscate their funds and property first; and we should search teem for jewelry and check their teeth as they board.
    2. My first executive order will be to establish the National Sweepstakes Fund with all the monies collected from the boomers. The fund is to be administered by my spouse, Mx M. (See, I am willing to take risks for our nation right there!)
    3. Don’t forget to like me and Mx M on Instagram and to support me on Patreon, please write patriotic (aka, patreonic) poetry and tweets at how inclusive we are (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_title)
    4. Since the UV light is known to be sanitizing, it is best to do deep cleaning of flyover states with gamma-rays which the USAF has ample means of generating.
    5. A swift cleaning action will give us relief with Social Security, Medicare, and the cost of housing. Yet we should remember that deep cleaning must be done regularly (say, every three to five years), or our nation gets unsanitary again.

    Don’t panic and watch this while on lock-down:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ballad_of_Narayama_(1983_film)

    • This is an excellent research article: very professionally written, very precise, well researched and thought-through, immaculately scientific. (I am not a virologist, but I do work with statistics, information, and uncertainty.)

      I have an issue with this article. No, scratch that: not with the article per se, but rather with the conclusions that are likely to be drawn. I cannot point a finger to the author: other people’s idiocies are none of his fault.

      Here is the problem: the article is not actionable: DUH! Absolutely not Dr Ioaniddis’ fault. He states that models based on the currently available information may go wrong. But of course.! And that’s the gulf between science and engineering, between what is correct and what is right.

      Both engineers and executives have to make critical decisions based on incomplete information: that’s just how it is. It would’ve been nice to wait for another 9-12 months in order to collect and cleanse the data on the coronavirus so that we could build a more prescriptive scientific model. Alas, we cannot afford that: a decision has to be made now, with an incomplete knowledge. (Actually, this is such a common refrain.)

      Please enjoy the article if you are an academic.

  9. The test rate in the US is extremely low – only hospital admissions, health care workers and NBA players are currently tested. Even with that low test rate, the case numbers are still doubling every couple days or so, and show no signs of slowing down. Given a 2-4% mortality rate, that gives means in a month you get death tolls in six or seven figures.

    Do you want your economic mayhem with dead bodies, or without?

    • Because we are rapidly increasing the number of tests the case numbers are going up more rapidly than reality. Also a 2-4% mortality rate is likely way over stated.

  10. Current (PCR) testing approach is limited. It misses non-infectious cases. For example, when somebody had the virus, but no longer “sheds” it:

    “Everybody’s talking about testing and that’s actually referring to PCR [polymerase chain reaction] testing, looking for viral RNA to determine whether a person is infected. But there’s still no talk of antibody testing to determine which people have had it and are immune, and that is another crucial tool we need to combat this epidemic. Many research labs throughout the country—I’m sure at Caltech too—could be running antibody tests right now to survey the population and tell us what the real penetrance of this pathogen is in our communities.”

    https://www.caltech.edu/about/news/tip-iceberg-virologist-david-ho-bs-74-speaks-about-covid-19

    • Gordon: Thanks. He doesn’t use per capita rates when he compares the US to Italy or a whole country to a portion of China. He has a calculator that defaults to 10 million deaths in the US if the government does not act. That does not seem credible, but maybe that is just human inability to comprehend the new normal!

    • I agree that the article has several conceptual flaws, most of which are listed in the very lengthy comments section! Choose the more relevant sections, and focus on those.

  11. I would call him prescient. (Based on Neil Ferguson revising his prediction for UK COVID deaths down from 500,000 to fewer than 20,000.)

    • Based on the congressional bailout of $2tn, that either:
      1. Is the most expensive scientific and economic mistake in history.
      2. Values the possible loss of life around R20m per person, which is ‘infinite’ relative to the average lifetime earnings (and even less if most of the mortality falls in the aged and sick bracket).

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