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NZ Response Criticised By British Epidemiologists

At the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, I heard New Zealand regularly lauded in the international press. Our “bold,” “decisive” move into lockdown was the envy of many of my friends and relatives overseas. Today, however, I heard a different take on the New Zealand response… also from overseas. Two UK epidemiologists (one currently working in Italy), were being interviewed on “Unherd” about what the evidence-based response to Covid-19 should look like. Dr Carl Heneghan is a member of the Centre for Evidence based Medicine at Oxford University and Dr Tom Jefferson is an author and editor of the Cochrane Collaboration's acute respiratory infections group. Both have worked as physicians, with Heneghan still working part-time as a GP.

One of the first arguments put out by these men is that Covid-19 should not be classified as a pandemic. Said Dr Heneghan: “One of the keys of the infection is to look at who’s been infected, which shows a crucial difference when comparing the pandemic theory to seasonal theory. In a pandemic you’d expect to see young people disproportionately affected, but in the UK we’ve only had six child deaths, which is far less than we’d normally see in a pandemic. The high number of deaths with over-75s fits with the seasonal theory.”

Whether or not we should be calling our current crisis a “pandemic” or “seasonal flu” was not the main focus of the interview, however. This was an interview about response to either, for as Dr Jefferson pointed out: “I am a survivor of four pandemics and for the other three, I didn’t even realise they were going on. People died but nothing changed and none of the fabric of society was eroded like this response… Do I see steps being taken at a European level about learning from our mistakes and changing policies? The answer is no…”

And that resounding, No! We have not been learning from the data, and when it comes to the predictions “none of them have been right," seemed to be what concerned all parties in this interview. Given the new data on the patterns of infections (“sharp up-rise”, initially, then rapid and “definite downward trend”), rates of death (very low in most parts of the population, high in 70+), patterns of transmission (a great deal of spreading within hospitals and “care-homes” during lockdown), and how it might be treated (research on hydroxychloroquine and dexamethasone were both mentioned) suppression seems to be the exact wrong approach.

And that’s where New Zealand got its mention:

“The benefits of the current strategy [lockdown/suppression] are outweighed by the harms,” explained Heneghan. "When it comes to suppression, only the virus will have a determination in that. If you follow the New Zealand policy of suppressing it to zero and locking down the country forever, then you’re going to have a problem… This virus is so out there now, I cannot see a strategy that makes suppression the viable option. The strategy right now should be how we learn to live with this virus.”

And it’s not only this virus we need to decide how we will live with, but all seasonal flus and pandemic viruses. Separation, rather than suppression, was Dr Jefferson’s preference. “We as a society have to decide what to do. If somebody coughs are we going to go into complete lockdown? … I think the most important thing to do is have a societal debate about what we’re going to do with these influenza-like illnesses. All of them. Not just corona.”

However both doctors warn that a societal debate may not end up with nations following the “evidence based” course of action. “We as individuals are part of the problem because sensationalism drives people to click and read the information,” said Dr Heneghan, who earlier in the interview stated the Spanish Flu is often “brought out to scare people”. He goes on to say, "So it’s a big circle because we’ve created the problem — if we put the worst case scenario out there, we will go and have a look. If you want a solution, you’ve got to get people to stop clicking on this sensationalist stuff.”

To see the full interview from July 18, 2020 with Drs Heneghan and Jefferson: https://unherd.com/thepost/oxford-epidemiologists-suppression-strategy-is-not-viable/

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