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Book Review

CORONAVIRUS:FALSE ALARM? by Karina Reiss and Sucharit Bhakdi

"In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker...But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognize no infallible authority, even in special questions…” – Mikhail Bakunin, God and State

Nothing would seem to demonstrate the madness of modern populism more than its denial of the unprecedented nature of SARS-Cov-2, the novel coronavirus. Donald Trump’s litany is still painfully familiar: “the cure is worse than the disease,” “it’s just like the flu,” “a vaccine before January.” The average Republican’s embrace of the theory of herd immunity evokes eugenics to anyone familiar with America’s history of white supremacy; it also resonates all too well with Trump’s deranged habit of comparing people to race horses with “good genes.”[1]

So some progressives were highly disturbed last year to see major socialist magazine Jacobin give a platform to Katherine Yih and Martin Kuldorff, epidemiologists strongly associated with herd immunity. The two Harvard professors were promoting their notion of “focused protection” against the virus. In their proposal, society would “responsibly” re-open with accommodations made for the immuno-deficient who could not safely report to work, and the elderly who couldn’t circulate without risk.[2] They were quickly denounced by Yale medical professor Gregg Gonsalves for promoting “human sacrifice” in a “barbaric” and “repugnant” disregard for life.[3]

It seemed like efforts to foist the anti-lockdown position off as liberal were finished after that fiasco, yet unsettling signs periodically emerge. The latest is an English translation of the German book Corona: False Alarm? by Chelsea Green Publishing, a company previously known for producing books associated with Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns.[4] False Alarm was written by two German medical professors and has played a key role in establishing the massive and sometimes violent anti-lockdown movement in that country.

Considering the associations of the German populist movement with the xenophobic right, it’s surprising that its new bible is written by an interracial couple, Dr. Karina Reiss and her Thai husband Sucharit Bhakdi. Both have university tenure, with Bhakdi in particular possessing credentials as the retired chair of Medical Microbiology at the University of Mainz. (This would hardly be the first time that top shelf scientists went off the rails of the prevailing wisdom, though. Fred Seitz, a notorious denier of climate change, was at one point president of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science.)

THE WHO VS. THE BMJ

Bhakdi and Weiss make several charges against the dominant pandemic “narrative.” The first is that reported “cases” of Covid-19 don’t reliably meet the true definition of a case. They excoriate the World Health Organization’s March 2020 decision that,

Each positive laboratory test for the virus was to be reported as a Covid-19 case, irrespective of clinical presentation. This definition represented an unforgiveable breach of a first rule in infectiology: the necessity to differentiate between ‘infection’ (invasion and multiplication of an agent in the host) and ‘infectious disease’ (infection with ensuing illness).

The Germans assert that only those with symptoms are the true Covid cases, as asymptomatics are far less likely to spread the virus. This is a provocative claim, but it isn’t without merit. The British Medical Journal affirms that “the way we define a case seems to have changed, moving from people with symptoms who have then tested positive to a…positive result alone, regardless of symptoms.” The journal cites Allyson Pollock, a scientific advisor to the British government, stating that “symptomatic and asymptomatic cases need to be separated out, to enable the government and local public health teams to understand what’s happening.” High-level officials have yet to take her advice, however. The BMJ’s latest clinical update on the virus states that “While asymptomatic individuals (those with no symptoms throughout the infection) can transmit the infection, their relative degree of infectiousness seems to be limited.”

BMJ also quoted Oxford professor Carl Heneghan’s complaint that “We are moving into a biotech world where the norms of clinical reasoning are going out of the window. A PCR test does not equal Covid-19; it should not, but in some definitions it does.” When the dubiously-defined cases rise, “there tends to be panic and over-reacting. This is a huge problem because politicians are operating in a non-evidence-based way,” according to Heneghan. [4] (Indeed, the definition of what constituted a Covid case was not agreed on in China until well after the major wave of illness passed there, casting doubt on the data that’s been fed into pandemic models.) [5] Bhakdi and Reiss argue that, “because of incorrect designation, the number of ‘cases’ surged and the virus vaulted to the top of the list of existential threats to the world.”

The problem is compounded, they claim, by the unreliability of the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which some biologists hold to be the gold standard of Covid diagnosis. PCR’s “were used worldwide for testing in the initial months of the outbreak.” The Germans can barely contain their contempt for the “error-prone” test, going so far as to endorse the bizarre experiment of the president of Tanzania and his health secretary who apparently extracted positive Covid results from PCR-testing a papaya and other fruits. Yet PCR has been a subject of persistent controversy among epidemiologists, even reaching the pages of The New York Times. Although literal false positives may be rare—in the sense that some inactive viral material is always present in a positive test—there usually needs to be a much greater critical mass (“100-fold to 1,000-fold”) of living SARS-Cov-2 for a person to actually be infectious. “In three sets of testing data…compiled by officials in Massachusetts, New York and Nevada, up to 90 percent of people testing positive carried barely any virus, a review by The Times found.” [6]

A policy of more precise calibration of the tests might allay the systemic errors, but there’s been no major reform in the months since. A more recent article from the paper still acknowledges that inactive “fragments may linger in the body, triggering positive test results long after the patient has stopped being infectious and the illness has resolved,” and even cites Joe Biden’s Covid adviser, Celine Gounder, that “capturing viral load at one point in time may not be useful without more information about the trajectory of illness.” [7] It’s difficult to refute Bhakdi and Reiss’ conclusion that “no reliable data existed regarding the true numbers” of infectious cases and that “basing any political decisions on official numbers at any stage was fallacy.”

LOCKDOWN RECONSIDERED

Even if the tests were reliable, the doctors insist, those political decisions come with horrifying human costs that can’t be justified. Perversely, the worst burdens may be on the elderly, the very group the lockdowns are supposed to protect. The authors’ argument that quarantines “are making elders’ lives less worth living” and that “this cannot but impinge on life expectancy,” is provocative, but recent coverage bears it out: A report by the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) states that “feelings of loneliness, abandonment, despair and fear among [nursing home] residents — and their toll on physical and neurological health — are only pushing the pandemic's death toll higher.” As visits from relatives are restricted, causes like “social isolation” and “failure to thrive” are becoming common on death certificates. AARP notes that US data on the effects of lockdown on seniors’ health is still limited; but there is alarming news from the UK—A BBC report, citing the Office of National Statistics, estimates that an excess 100 people are dying at home every day, the majority of them seniors, “very few of which are from Covid." In one week in the fall, nine times as many people died in their homes as died of coronavirus. An official with the Alzheimer's Society blamed “isolation, fear of coronavirus and suspension of health and social care services” for the death toll, and warned of a 75 percent rise in dementia in women.[8]

There is a common assumption that the unprecedented measures against coronavirus represent a new culture of solidarity in the West, but Reins and Bhakdi challenge this. “People tend to think as far as their front door,” they write, “maybe a bit beyond, but that’s it. Many are not aware that the most severe consequences often affect the poorest of the poor. One must not close one’s eyes to the fact that the existence and lives of countless people are threatened” by the new restrictions. The Germans are referring here to the people of the global south, particularly in India and Africa:

In India, there are hundreds of millions of day-labourers, many of whom led a hand-to-mouth existence before the coronavirus restrictions robbed them of their livelihoods. Now they have no more means to survive. They are “protected” against the coronavirus and are in turn left to starve.

The authors cite the head of the UN World Food Program warning of a “hunger pandemic of biblical proportions.” These were educated guesses at the time that Reiss and Bhakdi first wrote the book in May, but time has shown them to be grimly prescient. In January 2021, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof stated that the world’s 10-year trend of falling hunger had reversed course and there were now 10,000 children at risk of starvation every month. Misguided Covid-centric health measures were “the biggest cause” of this disaster. “Lockdowns meant that casual laborers had no income, and tuberculosis patients couldn’t get medicine,” writes Kristof. “Campaigns to battle malaria, polio, AIDS and vitamin A deficiency were left in disarray.” “Disrupted campaigns against female genital mutilation may result in two million more girls enduring genital cutting,” he adds, citing the UN once more. “The repercussions are endless.” [9]

PUBLIC HEALTH AND PRIVATE PROFIT

When an all-powerful economy lost its reason—and that is precisely what defines these spectacular times—it suppressed the last vestiges of scientific autonomy…No longer is science asked to understand the world, or to improve any part of it. It is asked instead to immediately justify everything that happens… yet modern medicine, for example, had once been able to pass as useful, and those who eradicated smallpox or leprosy were very different from those who contemptibly capitulated in the face of nuclear radiation or chemical farming. It can readily be seen, of course, that medicine today no longer has the right to defend public health against a pathogenic environment, for that would be to challenge the state, or at least the pharmaceuticals industry.” – Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle

In their wrath against the creators of this nightmare, and their initial loss at explaining the establishment narrative, the two biologists hazard paranoia. “Let’s not be naive. Science is just as corrupt as politics. The European Union provided 10 million euro for research on the novel coronavirus. Every Tom, Dick and Harry who wanted to research this virus could apply for financing.” Yet while charges of a systematic distortion of the virus are the minority position, it isn’t clear if they can be dismissed as a mere fringe theory. The authors quote John Oxford, emeritus professor of virology at the University of London, that media coverage is “sensational and not very good. Personally, I view this COVID outbreak as akin to a bad winter influenza epidemic. We are suffering from a media epidemic!” Also cited is WHO epidemiologist Johann Giesecke’s view that “politicians wanted to use the pandemic to advance their own positions and were perfectly willing to implement measures that were not scientifically substantiated.” Giesecke supports the minimalist pandemic response applied in Sweden, Costa Rica, and Japan.

Accusing politicians of treachery is one thing, but surely we must “trust the science.” The dilemma is that with the widespread dissent that Reiss and Bhakdi report, it’s impossible to speak of scientific consensus on Covid-19. Indeed, they argue that the anti-lockdown/anti-alarmist position would be dominant if not for a systematic smear campaign against its proponents. More paranoia? Perhaps, but a recent Scientific American article chronicling the trials of award-winning epidemiologist John Ioannidis lends it credence. One of the world’s most cited medical scholars, Dr. Ioannidis noted a pattern of junk science around the pandemic, questioned the accuracy of Covid case data, and led multiple studies demonstrating that the mortality rate of SARS-Cov-2 was far lower than what had been claimed in March 2020. [10]

Misleading news coverage immediately commenced, including in Buzzfeed and The Nation, alleging that Ioannidis was paid off by anti-lockdown business interests and that his research was substandard. An interview with the scientist was then banned from YouTube on grounds of spreading misinformation. Months later Ioannidis was cleared of all financial conflicts in a fact-finding review by an external legal firm, and his Covid infection fatality rate study was published by the World Health Organization itself. Hostile media outlets never corrected the smears however, and the damage was done. An investigation by The New Statesman, Britain’s leading progressive magazine, found that there was a pattern of slander and intimidation against health experts who questioned the dominant narrative. A common accusation was that the scientists were “Trumpian” even though their observations were factual (such as noting the seasonal pattern in the virus), and their motives social (critiquing the “wretched inequality of lockdown”). [11] “In light of episodes like these,” writes Scientific American, “a toxic environment, self-censoring and publication bias combine to explain the dearth of skeptical or heterodox findings and views regarding ways to control COVID-19.” [12]

According to Bhakdi and Reiss, the line between politician and scientist is blurred within public health institutions like WHO. The authors paint a picture of the organization in thrall to the pharmaceutical industry, illustrated with the case of the 2009 swine flu panic. The mortality rate of the swine flu was initially overestimated by a factor of 100 by Imperial College computer modeler Neil Ferguson—the same influential scientist who initially predicted 2 million deaths in the first wave of Covid in the US. Ferguson’s 2009 forecast was quickly debunked, which pre-empted claims that the swine flu qualified as a pandemic. “Prior to 2009, a pandemic required three criteria to be met,” note the Germans. “1) The pathogen must be new, 2) The pathogen must spread and cross continents rapidly, and 3) The pathogen must generally cause serious and often fatal disease.” Under pressure from the pharmaceutical industry, they write, WHO deleted the third requirement, which meant that low fatality rate was no longer an obstacle to declaring a state of emergency. “Everyone was told that a vaccine was desperately needed to stop the deadly pandemic. Vaccines were then produced at miraculous speed—and sold en masse to states around the world.” Estimated profit for the pharmaceutical industry from the swine flu panic amounted to $18 billion, even though the virus wound down long before any shots were administered.

The Germans cite a WHO report that confirms most of their points. Its author Peter Doshi notes the bizarre contradiction wherein WHO removed the requirement of high mortality rate from their definition of pandemic, even as its officials repeatedly referenced the megadeath 1918 flu as the pandemic archetype. “The Council of Europe voiced serious concerns that the declaration of a pandemic became possible only after WHO changed its definition,” read the report. It continued:

Concern over ties between WHO advisers and industry fueled suspicion about the independence and appropriateness of the decisions made at the national and international levels…Since the 1980s, ‘partnerships’ between industry and academia have grown increasingly close. Today, for example, both government officials and academic influenza scientists belong to the Neuraminidase Inhibitor Susceptibility Network, a group funded by GlaxoSmithKline and Roche. Much work is needed to ensure that decisions are not unwittingly influenced by industrial interests. [13]

Council of Europe health official Paul Flynn put it less delicately, telling The Guardian that "the tentacles of drug company influence are in all levels in the decision-making process," regarding WHO pandemic policy. WHO leaders had originally dismissed such claims as “conspiracy theories” when less official researchers had voiced them.[14] (In Lilian Franck’s documentary Trust WHO, though, the organization’s former director of public health states that he was locked out of meetings and not kept informed of the vaccine industry’s influence on the “pandemic” redefinition by higher-ups.) These facts pierce the aura of integrity and infallibility that the WHO possesses in many people’s minds, and make Bhakdi and Reiss’ charges frighteningly credible.

DISPARITY AND DEMYSTIFICATION

The tragic deaths of 20,000 people in New York City would seem to belie those charges. But the biologists point out that New York was an outlier, “where more than half of the Covid-19 deaths nationwide occurred” last spring. Every epidemic has hot spots, including past influenza seasons. In the 2017-2018 flu, the center of the epidemic was California which had hospital overflows similar to New York in 2020.[15] There is no way to show that tens of thousands of deaths didn’t happen in 2018 because the California Department of Health did not count flu deaths in the demographic that suffers them most—people over the age of 65.[16] In contrast, New York counted (and the media daily reported) every coronavirus death in 2020, both “confirmed” and “probable.” “Confirmed” includes every person who died within 60 days of receiving a positive PCR test. [17]

In a very anti-Trumpian observation, the Germans note that the greatest suffering corresponds to areas with the largest immigrant populations; they quote a Bronx emergency room doctor that “These people come way too late, but their reasoning is understandable. They are afraid of being discovered…without residence permits, without jobs and without any health insurance. The highest mortality rate is recorded in this group of people”. That is, if ICE was not engaging in its reign of terror, undocumented people might’ve gotten the treatment they needed to survive. Another connection which Trump would not be keen to make is that the CDC was holding clinical trials of his favorite treatment, chloroquine, in NYC at the time. Bhakdi and Reiss note that the side effects of the controversial medicine are particularly harsh on people with Hispanic heritage, who dominated the neighborhoods with the highest death tolls last spring. [18]

False Alarm is a far from perfect book, but it lives up to its subtitle’s promise of “Facts and Figures.” It sometimes goes beyond that into sheer polemic, yet this is hardly inappropriate in light of the sensational language that lockdown advocates like Greg Gonsalves launch in the direction of mild dissenters. The authors won’t be winning any awards for their prose, but their perspective as distinguished microbiologists is indispensable. One major gap in the book is the minimal discussion of racial disparity in Covid response effects, likely because it was written for a monoracial German audience. As mentioned above, the book explores the catastrophic effects of lockdown on Africa, but the damage done to Black people in the West is barely touched on.

That’s disappointing since an antiracist case against lockdown clearly exists. Studies have shown that Blacks and immigrants are three times more likely to lose their jobs in lockdowns than whites are—and in the US this usually means they also lose their health insurance. For this reason, the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that, so far, the effects of lockdown will cause 890,000 premature deaths in the US over the next 15 years, a disproportionate amount of them African-Americans and women (a 3% increase in mortality rate overall).[19] One of the ways in which these populations are vulnerable is through increased obesity rates, which are more significant to mortality than virus exposure. Studies indicate that the sedentary #StayHomeStaySafe response to SARS-Cov-2 is likely worsening obesity.[20] While this data may not have been available at the time False Alarm was written, it definitely needs to be explored in the next edition.

As media only occasionally mentions, the German anti-lockdown movement includes both the far-left and far-right, much like the Yellow Vest movement of France; Reiss and Bhakdi’s book demonstrates why. The anti-alarmist scientists’ priorities show a progressive concern for society’s most vulnerable, as well as for individual liberty. For those who fear conspiricism, the microbiologists make no vast leaps of logic, but take reasonable note of the corrupt corporate orientation of the World Health Organization, and its track record for arbitrary and contradictory uses of data. No one can understand the anti-lockdown movement without reading False Alarm—but more importantly, no one can hope to relieve the agonies and disparities of the current crises without these doctors’ expert demystification of public health.


Notes:

  1. https://forward.com/fast-forward/454977/trump-praises-racehorse-theory-at-minnesota-rally/

  2. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/09/covid-19-pandemic-economy-us-response-inequality; https://twitter.com/gregggonsalves/status/1308346884294086662

  3. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/67564-chelsea-green-crashes-book-on-presidential-candidate-sanders.html

  4. Elisabeth Mahase, “Covid-19: the problems with case counting” BMJ (British Medical Journal) 2020; 370, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m3374 (03 September 2020) ; “Virology, transmission, and pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2” BMJ 2020; 371, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m3862 (23 October 2020)

  5. John Xie “In China, Officials Exclude Asymptomatic COVID-19 Carriers From Data”- https://www.voanews.com/science-health/coronavirus-outbreak/china-officials-exclude-asymptomatic-covid-19-carriers-data ; “These changes should be taken into account when making inferences on epidemic growth rates and doubling times, and therefore on the reproductive number, to avoid bias.” Tim K Tsang, Peng Wu, et al. “Effect of changing case definitions for COVID-19 on the epidemic curve and transmission parameters in mainland China: a modelling study” Lancet Public Health 2020; April 21, 2020 - https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(20)30089-X/fulltext

  6. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/29/health/coronavirus-testing.html

  7. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/29/health/coronavirus-viral-load.html

  8. https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/health/info-2020/covid-isolation-killing-nursing-home-residents.html ; https://www.bbc.com/news/health-54598728; https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/09/22/unexplained-excess-deaths-home-almost-nine-times-higher-covid/

  9. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/02/opinion/sunday/2020-worst-year-famine.html#click=https://t.co/mxYt6MbOxO

  10. John P. A. loannidis, “Coronavirus Disease 2019: The Harms of Exaggerated Information and Non- Evidence-Based Measures,” European Journal of Clinical Investigation 50, no. 4 (April 2020)- https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/eci.13222

  11. https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/coronavirus/2020/10/why-scientists-fear-toxic-covid-19-debate?fbclid=IwAR3e5M2HBUmsPjbZ2Gd1fkj47_v1C80CKqPVLe1VnRePp7e8IhS_e_dwU0U

  12. Jeanne Lenzer, Shannon Brownlee “The COVID Science Wars: Shutting down scientific debate is hurting the public health” Scientific American, November 30, 2020 - https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-covid-science-wars1/

  13. Peter Doshi “The elusive definition of pandemic influenza” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2011- https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/89/7/11-086173/en/

  14. Randeep Ramash, “Report condemns swine flu experts' ties to big pharma’” The Guardian- https://www.theguardian.com/business/2010/jun/04/swine-flu-experts-big-pharmaceutical ; Deborah Cohen, “Conflicts of Interest: WHO and the pandemic flu ‘conspiracies’” BMJ 2010; 340 doi: c (Published 04 June 2010)

  15. S. Karlamangla, “Hospitals Overwhelmed by Flu Patients Are Treating Them in Tents,” Los Angeles Times, January 18, 2018 - https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-flu-demand-20180116-htmlstory.html; California Dept. of Public Health, “Influenza Surveillance Report 2017–2018 Season” pg.10 https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/CDPH%20Document%20Library/Immunization/Annual2017-18.pdf

  16. https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-data.page; Yoon K. Loke and Carl Heneghan, “Why No-One Can Ever Recover from COVID-19 in England—A Statistical Anomaly,” Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (Oxford University), July 16, 2020 - c


  1. Katja Thorwarth, “New Yorker Notarzt iiber Corona-Krise in der Bronx: Manchmal 200 Erkrankungen in einem Stockwerk,” Frankfurter Rundschau, May 14, 2020 - https://www.fr.de/politik/coronavirus-corona-krise-usanotarzt-lage-new-york-bronx-zr-13762623.html ; “Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency,” Genetics Home Reference, National Institutes of Health, August 17, 2020, https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/glucose-6-phosphate-dehydrogenase-deficiency#statistics

  2. F. Bianchi, G. Bianchi, Dongho Song, “The Long-Term Impact of the COVID-19 Unemployment Shock on Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates” National Bureau of Economic Research- http://www.nber.org/papers/w28304

  3. In the Covid-19 case, an advisable strategy may be to increase population immunity and resilience and prevent sedentary behaviors through higher physical activity and better physical fitness. Hence, political strategies restricting physical activity (e.g., closing sport facilities) may refrain the enhancement of population immunity in response to present and future viral aggressors.” Quentin De Larochelambert, et al, “Covid-19 Mortality: A Matter of Vulnerability Among Nations Facing Limited Margins of Adaptation” Frontiers in Public Health, 19 November 2020 - https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2020.604339/full?fbclid=IwAR2EbW20dQe2Z5lMGHm0URI_Bhtt6BasxDzQM9xBJXYbEgu_ZeK-nq-g7KU#SM6