For humans, smart and humble has been a challenging combination.
Time and again, very clever people without any medical training and not at all epidemiologists, have been telling Israeli lay readers that they don’t speak as authorities but … they have very interesting thoughts.
I would call it smart uninformed fake news.
If only their humility could keep up with their intelligence!
Have you read what Professor Aumann wrote on the coronavirus outbreak? I didn’t. He is a Nobel Prize winner and humble enough to not talk about things he knows nothing about. We need more of those.
Let’s listen to 4 Israeli scientists who recently volunteered their ‘expertise.’
It’s nice when people deeply understand numbers and statistics. I don’t. But never instead of common sense, simple insight or basic knowledge. You don’t go look for novel ideas if your normal ideas give all the answers. That’s called Occam’s Razor, a well-known principle in natural science.
“Mainly Fear of the Unknown”
Isaiah (Shy) Arkin is a professor of Structural Biochemistry and he knows so about inner workings of viruses by which viruses regulate their salinity and acidity. He stresses that he didn’t have all the answers. He adds that he’s not a physician, nor an epidemiologist, and not a virologist per se.
He first explains at length about the race to find a medication or vaccine against this coronavirus and says clearly that the worst-case scenario is we never find anything. There is absolutely nothing to treat any coronavirus. There are vaccines against coronaviruses that affect animals but not against coronaviruses that affect humans. So far so good.
This is not going to kill humanity. Most people have very mild symptoms.
You’re not going to see millions upon millions of people dying. That’s not going to take place.
So, why does the government take draconian measures?
“Fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown. Very simple.” If the reporter reports what he said, that he says. Unbelievable. The authorities are just fear-mongering?
Because? He says: In China, we saw only 3,000 deaths in 1.5 billion people so this seems mild (that word is my summery-MM).
But then he admits that China showed that curfews are effective.
So, the Israeli government is not exaggerating after all? The reporter doesn’t ask.
Then he confuses asymptomatic newly infected and immune people (who also show no symptoms because they are immune). Let it be.
We don’t know how many people are asymptomatically sick until we have tested a whole population. So he suggests that it “could very well be” that the mortality rate might be lower than the 3.4% than is found around the globe (Italy: 7.5%). Nice idea but has no basis in any findings so far. (More fiction than science.) And that trivializes a bit how bad it could be.
Then he says that because so many people in China have recovered, we should not assume that this virus doesn’t mutate too easily. One has nothing to do with the other. Immunity normally is only escaped in a next infection. And we’ve seen already reports from scientists that in China a later milder variant has been found and in Italy a more severe one.
Then he says: “recovery does not mean that you don’t die. Recovery means you’re no longer infectious, and you are not exhibiting any symptoms.” Everybody seems to die but in my book, recovery means that you don’t die from the illness. But the reporter is silent.
And then he adds: “Recovery means this is someone that you can go ahead and hug in public.” But that’s only true if you developed (enough) immunity. Something we do not yet know about this virus.
“There have been 56,000 people in China, out of 80,000, that have recovered completely. So this is not as bad of a killer.” If the numbers are right, that means that 30% has not yet recovered completely. That is a very mean virus and “not as bad of a killer” is not an appropriate reassurance about it. Especially if it also killed 3,000 people and only stopped under total lockdown.
Then he says the unforgivable sentence: “in terms of the death toll, flu is much, much, much worse [than this corona].” That is only if you stop COVID-19. If you don’t, it will kill 35 to 75 times more people than the flue.
So again, he says that this virus is mostly feared irrationally. So wrongly.
But then he pushes off the question “how concerned people should be, and how smart or otherwise the world’s political leadership is proving in handling this.” He now remembers that this is not his field of expertise, especially because it involves psychology. He does mention that he does what the government says. Despite the irrational fear, it seems.
“Less Than (Half a) Dozen Deaths”
Michael Levitt is a biophysicist who won a Nobel prize for chemistry, a field not even related to epidemiology. But he is good at crunching numbers. He saw that the number of corona infected and fatalities in China at first rose exponentially but then went down in a straight line. So, he was able to tell his Chinese friends: It looks like a lot of deaths still but relatively, the thing is slowing down. So far so good.
He also understood that the decline came because the infected don’t continue to meet different people all the time and were under lockdown.
But then he says that isolation and limiting social contact are not the only factors at play. He does not explain this wild claim. If no one meets anyone else anymore, how could the virus still spread? This is an unnecessary hypothesis!
Then he argues that the Diamond Princess cruise ship should have seen a 100% infection rate but only 20% were infected. “It is a lot, but pretty similar to the infection rate of the common flu.” Based on those figures, he concluded that most people are simply naturally immune. A totally unfounded hypothesis that he doesn’t check. And dangerous because if there is a plague but 80% is immune, why bother protecting yourself if also from the 20% non-immune “only” 3.4% dies, is 0.68, 7 times the flu.
You don’t have to be on a cruise ship to get the flu easily. It’s much more contagious than this coronavirus. That’s why washing hands and staying in your cabin helps for corona but not for the flu. And not because 80% is naturally immune!
Then he claims that Italy’s higher death rate was likely because it has more old people and that Italians refused to give up their very rich social life. Many have said so.
But now, where is his “80% natural immunity” argument suddenly?
Unfortunately, his wisdom further diminished in an interview 3 days on.
Riding his newfound fame, he then claims that fears in Israel over the coronavirus were disproportionate to the threat. Go party!
He then claims: “South Korean tests are 10 times more sensitive than in Italy. If Italy measured cases like Korea, there would have been 10 times more cases.” And he is good in numbers? No, they could have found 10 times more asymptomatic people and they would have found eventually symptomatic people earlier — not 10 times more infected.
Then he says: “To put things in proportion, the number of deaths of coronavirus in Italy is 10% of the number of deaths of influenza in that country between 2016-2017.” That seems strange. The heavy flu pandemic (H1N1) 2009–2010 infected 3,064,933 Italians of whom 244 died. This corona infection as of March 18, has seen in Italy 30,000 cases and 2,900 deaths. But the reporter knows or asks nothing so anything he says goes.
“On a global scale, the number of cases in Israel is very small.” So is the number of inhabitants. That doesn’t make it negligible.
“There are no deaths in Israel, so that’s why it’s not even on the world map for the disease.” If we do nothing, 20,000 Israeli’s could die from it. That’s not trifling.
One of the comments under the article was: “My barber thinks it’s gonna be bad.” Exactly. Who cares what a smart person says who doesn’t know anything about this?
“It Will be Over Soon”
Ran Namerode is a professional and entrepreneur. He does not claim any expertise in biology, immunology, microorganisms or infectious diseases. Numbers, however, he’s good at and so he’s speaking up anyway. And he noticed that in every country, the number of coronavirus infections went up but within a couple of weeks went down again. So, he wants to bring us a message of hope. If his model is correct, it “represents the cycle of the coronavirus” – whatever that’s supposed to mean.
However, he really doesn’t know anything about what happens here. There are two easy explanations why most countries see a rapid decline in infections and deaths after a rapid increase.
1. When the infection and death rates grow exponentially for two weeks, there is no alternative and these countries go on lockdown. The virus simply cannot spread anymore, so after 2-4 weeks (incubation time up to 2 weeks) the epidemic stops.
Many Western and Arabic countries haven’t really started testing, so they don’t yet know how bad it is and the virus at the moment spreads like an underground wildfire. As soon as they start mass testing, they will really panic, do lockdown and the results will show a couple of weeks later.
2. Iran now also sees a decline like that. I don’t believe it. They do nothing there, they don’t test, the epidemic will stop when 70-80% has been infected and the virus can’t find non-immune people so easily anymore.
So, “Don’t worry, this only lasts a few weeks” is not only untrue but also dangerous. I believe that the epidemic stops only because of lockdown. No further explanation is also needed. But if people believe that the epidemic automatically peters out, why take lockdown seriously?
And China already shows that it ain’t over till it’s over. The original spread has stopped. But now they have new cases from people who enter from outside China and re-import the virus.
Besides, we have no idea how long this pandemic will last. It’s good to keep hope that it will end soon, through the nature of the virus, through human action or through Divine intervention. But not to build on it as if it’s bound to end soon. We don’t know that. It could last years. If that’s the case, we’ll deal with it. Hope is good. But not false expectations.
“It Will Last a Year”
Speaking of which, Israel’s Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman Tov should know better but he predicts that his previous estimate of the pandemic stretching into 2021 might come true. It could be and it could not be. It is good to warn against over-optimism but we also must stress that over-pessimism might be misplaced too. He should know that we don’t know and he should say that a quick end is not certain. It might be tempting to make yourself a name with a sensational prediction. Don’t.
Though, it’s nice to see that some Israelis can do long-term planning too.
One may find tomorrow a known medicine that cures and saves all people seriously sick with this coronavirus (like there is now for the AIDS-virus).
But it could also take decades before they find a medicine that works (as for AIDS — 37 million died, and for tuberculosis) or even eradicates it, eventually (like for smallpox). But it could be that they’ll have no sure vaccine ever (like for influenza, which also mutates) and no medicine (as for measles: get a vaccination).
That we don’t know can be a source of hope and a reason for caution. It’s not a reason to panic nor for saying that we can be sure it’ll work out soon.
For sure, this will pass. Plan on telling great stories about it.