‘Covid-19’: unprecedented Corona killer virus or unprecedented scare?
The world has been under the spell of the Corona killer virus for several months now. And the panic still seems great. The emotional images are still on our retinas. People being dragged from their homes. Sick, dead, overcrowded hospitals, army cars with coffins. And after that: the ‘lockdown strategy’ in many western countries, with probably very far-reaching consequences for the socio-economic situation throughout the world. People are worried and wonder if they will have to get used to a new kind of society. With new rules. New (less) freedoms.
People died. People became seriously ill. People are panicking. The camera’s of the world focusses on human suffering that sometimes seems to get very close. Suffering that may always be part of life but now suddenly gets a new name: ‘Corona’.
As the panic and frenzy from Asia, via the Middle East and Europe is now moving westwards to North and South America, an picture is slowly emerging in Europe that allows us to draw up an (preliminary) balance. I would like to share my view of the situation, where possible with substantiation and mentioning sources from a European (and Dutch) perspective. Many alarming claims dominate the debate and are held to be true, but is that justified? Frequently occurring claims include:
- “Corona is unprecedented because this is a new virus and we don’t have a vaccine against it.”
- “Corona kills an unprecedented number of people”
- “Corona is much more deadly and contagious than Influenza.”
- “The numbers of Corona victims may not be that high, but that’s only thanks to the lockdown measures”
- “It’s not about the number of deaths, it’s about IC capacity.”
- “#staythefuckathome, #flattenthecurve and listen to the government and the experts. Anyone who says otherwise is fake-news
Later on in this article, I will review these claims again and see if they still stand. I will close off with my personal fear, and #spoileralert, that fear is not for the virus itself.
But first, some facts.
Interesting and valuable facts
1. Total mortality in 28 European countries is not ‘unprecedented
There’s a lot of debate as to whether corona is more deadly than seasonal flu. If corona is indeed so much more deadly, we should see this in the total mortality figures of Europe. However, if we look at the data, we see that the current mortality rates are not unprecedented, and that total mortality in 2016/17 peaked even higher.
The figures come from EuroMOMO, a non-profit organisation that collects and publishes these figures on a weekly basis for many years. The data are up to wk14 and the numbers of recent weeks can still be adjusted.
2. The impact and seriousness of the situation vary from country to country, and even from region to region.
In the 28 (EuroMOMO member countries) European countries the flu waves in recent years were as follows (again up to wk14, i.e. slightly delayed). A different picture of more severe and very modest consequences per country. So it seems.
Countries with a more severe flu wave include Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and the UK (England). A mild to very mild influenza season seems to be the picture for countries such as Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Scotland. Striking is Sweden, which has an extremely mild flu season, despite the fact that no lockdown has been set. More about this later.
In the Netherlands there are some ‘hot spots’ where many patients tested positive for ‘Corona’ and some hospitals encoutered (almost) capacity problems.
3. Few SARI cases in Germany
If we look at the symptoms of the Coronavirus, we are talking about ‘respiratory’ complaints such as sudden and sometimes severe pneumonia. An image that, incidentally, largely corresponds to Influenza symptoms. Looking at these SARI (German: Schwerer Akuter Respiratorischer Infektionen) cases in Germany, the flu wave in Germany has clearly passed its peak. According to the data of the Robert Koch Institute (in the recent period more ‘alarmist’ than ‘skeptical’) the recent flu wave seems to have been a very mild one. With an average number of SARI cases among young children (0–4) and an average number of cases at high ages (80+, the grey line in the graph). The number of SARI cases in the influenza season 2017/18 was significantly higher in all age groups above 35 years of age.
“..absolute death risk expressed as equivalent of death risk from driving a motor vehicle.”
4. How deadly and how dangerous is ‘Corona’??
More and more figures are becoming available. But many of these figures are incomplete, unreliable and often not comparable over time and across countries and institutions. The few cases where a ‘fair’ picture could best be established give experts a good insight into the real infectiousness and lethality of the new Coronavirus. Stanford Professor John P.A. Ioannidis and his colleagues published an important scientific study on 8 April that stated as its main conclusion:
“Proportion of COVID-19 deaths that occur in people <65 years old; relative risk of COVID-19 death in people <65 versus ≥65 years old; absolute risk of death in people <65 and in those ≥80 years old in the general population as of 4/4/2020; absolute death risk expressed as equivalent of death risk from driving a motor vehicle’.
See below an excerpt from an interesting interview with Professor Ioannidis where he explains the conclusions of his research (or view the full interview here).
5. Unreliable figures
The figures that determine the overall picture are still subject to change. And for several reasons probably still are inaccurate or incorrect. Some important reasons are:
I. Panic, media hype and ambiguity
In almost all countries there are delays in registrations/administrations and the possibility of double counting, or under counting. See the recent ‘updates of Dutch national institues RIVM and CBS’. On the daily news reports of ‘123’, ‘140’, ‘112 Dutch Corona deaths’ (about 1,000 deaths per week), these institutions were apparently suddenly 2,000 off, and had to ‘add’ these retrospectively. Those 2,000 deaths per week equals more than the full difference between a low summer mortality and the highest peak during the flu wave. The data of the official institutions RIVM/CBS therefore can be estimated to be rather unreliable, to say the least.
Also the media contribute to a lot of the false public opinion. Downright false claims are slammed into the headlines of seemingly ‘reliable’ and mainstream newspapers. Timing seems conspicuous.
For example. In the course of the ‘corona crisis’, the media very rarely, if ever, refer to previous flu waves. Any comparison with them is dismissed as “Corona is no ordinary flu!”. However, as soon as the RIVM — I suspect retrospectively — suddenly adds 2,000 deaths in one week, one of the major Dutch Newspapers the Volkskrant (almost triumphantly) writes: “Death count due to corona virus now well above mortality peak of the flu wave winter 2017–2018”.
This suggests that ‘the death toll by Corona’ (all deaths reported several times a day and of which ‘the counter’ allegedly hits about 2,300) would therefore be ‘well above’ the winter 2017/18 peak of about 9,400 deaths. Regardless of whether or not the literal wording in the article was corrext or incorrect, the claim and the suggestion of the paper is crystal clear: but it is pertinent and quite wrong. And so every day the media contributes to extra fear and extra panic.
II. Died from Corona or died with Corona?
Corona deaths’ are defined differently for each country, but are often counted as such if the deceased tested positive for Corona at the time of death (or subsequently). This approach is incorrect. In epidemiology, a cause of death may only be named as such if it also played a significant role in the death. Research on the approximately 2,000 ‘Corona victims’ in Lombardy (North Italy) showed, for example, that of the victims approximately 25% suffered from 1 other medical condition (which was also potentially fatal), 25% had 2 and 50% had 3 or more of those potentially fatal conditions. In addition, the average age of these victims was approx. 79 years.
Which part of these victims actually died because of Corona and not because of diabetes, heart disease, chronic lung disease, old age or one of the other many flu viruses?
III. The Coronatest may have a very high margin of error, according to recent scientific research (Zhuang et al, March 2020). The test could possibly reveal 80% false positives, or 4 out of 5 ‘you have Corona results’ could be false. The Coronatest made by the DZIF (of Dr. Drosten/de Charité Group, among others) and sold all over the world, has been developed in an unprecedented short time and without serious tests and controls (panic) immediately deployed. And it also appears in practice, read for example the story about a German patien that tested positive for Corona, where follow up test 100% certainly proved he dit not have the new Corona variant and therefore probably tested positive on an old Corona variant that has been circulating in mankind for a long time.
Interestingly, you would expect that the exponential growth of Corona cases that we can experience in real-time on ‘Worldometers’ would have been caused by an exponential growth in the percentage of positive tests. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The percentage of positive results seems to stabilize around 10% of the total number of tests taken. A percentage that is roughly equal to the percentage in which Corona viruses have been part of all influenza or respiratory tract viruses for many years. In other words, the main or perhaps only reason that there are ‘exponentially increasing numbers’ of Corona cases (i.e. positive test results) is because exponentially increasing numbers of tests are being taken.
IV. The technique on which the Coronatest is based is that of (RT) PCR or ‘Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction’. The inventor and 1993 Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry with this technique, Karry Mullis, explicitly stated back in 1996 that this technique is ‘by it’s very nature’ unsuitable for the quantitative ‘Gold Standard’ determinations that are made with it. NB. This does not only apply to this Corona test, but to all virus tests worldwide based on the PCR technique, which could show whether a certain virus has been found in the body to a certain extent.
V. Unfortunately, there are quite some incentives for over-attributing victims as COVID-19 deaths. For example, the official instruction from the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) in the US is currently that doctors should classify all deaths that are even remotely similar to COVID-19 as COVID-19. This means that the patient does not necessarily need to be tested for Corona, symptoms are not necessary, and possible earlier contact with another possible ‘Corona-case’ is enough to have the deceased included in the counters as a ‘Corona-death’.
VI. And unfortunately there are also incentives financially. For example, the level of support from the EU was partly dependent on the scale of a country’s ‘Corona crisis’. And in the US, Medicare provides a standard reimbursement of USD 13,000 for hospitals for a COVID-19 patient, while a COVID-19 patient is ‘good’ for USD 39,000. As terrible as this is, it naturally affects the attribution of the disease and death. See tweet below (source: unfortunately FOX news).
…experts advise that every, and this flu wave, just go ahead and reach group immunity as quickly as possible…
6. “Yes, there are fewer casualties, but that’s thanks to the lockdowns.” Is a much-heard argument. But is it true?
Regardless of the economic and social effects, it is highly questionable whether lockdowns will work. Or that they may even have a negative effect on the number of cases of illness and ultimately mortality. A normal course of any flu epidemic, every year, is that it is completed within approximately 3–4 weeks and that ‘herd immunity’ is therefore achieved after 3–4 weeks. This herd immunity is the only real protection to viruses that exists. And that’s the protection we build year-in, year-out in about 3–4 weeks. Every year a new ‘flu epidemic’ (according to the eased WHO definition you may also call it a flu ‘pandemic’, every year again) waves over the world. The constantly renewing mutations of all viruses (because that’s how they work) spread because of the winter season (people are more indoors, lower temperatures, more tiny droplets in the air) and our immune system learns how to defend itself against them, by being exposed to it. And every year people, especially those with medical conditions but not only them, die. That’s how it works. Always. Sometimes a flu wave is more intense. Sometimes it’s mild.
The argument for the unprecedented lockdowns lies in the ‘flatten-the-curve strategy’: for fear of a possible overload of medical/ICU capacity.
Experts in this field indicate that lockdowns, if anything, mainly result in a widening of the epidemic curve, i.e. an extension of the epidemic and thus an extension of the period during which vulnerable people in the population can be infected. At the same time, the postponement of group immunity increases the risk of a second or third wave of infection. These experts advise to let every, and also this flu wave, go its course undisturbed and to reach group immunity as soon as possible. And protect the elderly and vulnerable, as you should do every season, preferably as much as possible against infection in this period of 3–4 weeks.
See for example this explanation by Dr. Knut M. Wittkowski (Former Head, Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design, Center for Clinical & Translational Science at Rockefeller University, 1998–2018).
Lockdown or no lockdown. It doesn’t seem to make any difference.
To assess whether lockdowns make a difference you would like to compare between countries that opted for lockdowns and those that did not. But in all panic, almost all countries have set ‘lockdowns’. In some countries they did not or there are well documented differences. So these countries are very interesting to have a look at.
Earlier we mentioned Sweden, which did not set lockdowns. The course of the epidemic/flu wave in Sweden is broadly the same as in comparable countries such as Denmark, Finland and Norway, where lockdowns have been set.
Lockdown in China only after herd immunity
Looking at the flu epidemic in China, we see a very common course with an exceptional ‘peak’ on Feb 13. An impossibility in any natural process (“Nature doesn’t jump” — Darwin), i.e. a peak that must have been caused by a change of measurement, administration or classification. If the graph before and after Feb 13 is smoothly connected, a classic epidemiological picture emerges. An increasing number of infections with a clear peak at Feb. 5th. Note that the Chinese ‘lockdown’ did not take effect until February 17 (i.e. 12 days later).
The first graph shows the registration of people who tested positive for Corona. Those tests could only be performed after people showed symptoms. The actual infection should therefore have happened 7–14 days before that. See the 2nd and 3rd graph below with a classic picture of an outbreak at the possible actual time of infection, including the start of the Chinese lockdown. In other words, in China — well before the lockdown — group immunity had already been built up.
7. Corona measures will have a huge impact on the whole world. But how big is the ‘Corona problem’ actually, compared to other health problems?
It now seems clear that the measures to combat the ‘Corona threat’ will rock the foundations of our international societies in every aspect. Economically, in terms of public health, rule of law, and in terms of possible consequences for our change of lifestyle, interactions and fundamental freedoms that may suddenly seem less fundamental. The impact will therefore be enormous. The Corona problem on a national or global scale will certainly be gigantic as well, to be worth such drastic measures. Let’s have a look.
Corona is only a very small fraction of mortality in the Netherlands
Approximately 2,300 people died (according to the numbers so far) of COVID-19. Suppose, in this season, the mortality ‘from Corona’ would rise to a total of 4,000. Even then it is a very small number compared to other causes of death. Look at the following figures (data from 2017, so still fairly modest estimates) and ask yourself what ‘emergency measures’ we are taking to counteract these deaths? On a population of about 17 million people:
- approx 9.000 people died in 2017/18 from flu
nobody even noticed it
- approx 2.000 people die from suicide
- approx 3.000 people die from diabetes
- approx 14.000 people die from dementia
- approx 41.000 people die from cardiovascular disease
- approx 52.000 people die from cancer
Corona as a cause of death is also insignificant on a global scale
About 115,000 people died from the COVID-19 flu season (according to the probably greatly overestimated numbers, see chapter 5 “Unreliable figures”) until the time of writing of this article. The flu season has already traveled an important part of the world from east to west, so it will end after North and South America. But suppose ‘Corona’ causes 200,000 deaths in 2020, how does that compare to the other 10–100x worse causes of death? What ‘state of emergency’ do we declare? What fear do we have?
- between 200,000 and 650,000 people die from the flu every year.
- approx 400,000 people are murdered every year
- approx 900,000 people died each year of AIDS
- approx 1,200,000 people die each year from TB
- approx 6,500,000 people die each year from respiratory diseases
- approx 9,500,000 people die of cancer every year
- approx 18,000,000 die each year from cardiovascular disease
Which conclusions can we draw from that? Time for a careful fact-check on some common claims.
“Corona is unprecedented because this is a new virus and we don’t have a vaccine against it”
1. Incorrect. Every flu, every year, and this flu with new Influenza and new Corona variants kills. So this year, too.
All viruses mutate constant. That’s how they function. That’s not scary. And it’s no big deal. So all flu viruses are new every flu season. That applies to Coronaviruses, to Influenza viruses, to Rhino, Entero, to all viruses. And there’s never a vaccine against any new virus. The flu vaccination only offers protection against (several) old versions of various flu viruses.
Of course people will die of the flu again this year. And that certainly includes the victims of this new Corona variant. The symptoms associated with this Corona variant (atypical double pneumonia) may seem more severe than the variants that have been around for years. People get sick. Seriously ill. And die. Tragically on any personal scale.
“Corona kills an unprecedented number of people”
2. Incorrect: the total mortality in 2019/20 (including Corona virus) seems to be very similar to previous years.
We already saw that it is difficult to assess, count or compare figures on ‘Corona deaths’. That’s why it makes sense to look at total mortality in countries. If a lot of extra people die (like every year in the winter season) then this is reflected in the total mortality figures. If we look at those figures, in some countries the mortality is higher than average, in some countries even (slightly) higher than the mortality in the season 2017/18, but in many countries the mortality also seems to be significantly lower than average and very much lower than in the season 2017/18. In any case, the number of victims certainly does not seem to be ‘unprecedented’.
Looking at the total non-issue that the ca. 9,000 ‘flu deaths in the Netherlands in 2017/18 seem to have been, there is no rational reason at all to see in the current mortality the most drastic measures ever taken.
The large local differences in impact may have to do with possibly 2 Corona ‘strains’ that first infected different countries and may have differed in severity. It is fairly certain that the large differences in population structure, air pollution, lifestyle, hospital capacity, hospital hygiene, immunity to antibiotics, etc. are also largely responsible for this.
“The numbers of Corona victims may not be that high, but that’s only thanks to the lockdown measures”
4. Unsubstantiated, unlikely: Normal flu waves are over in 3–4 weeks. After that, group immunity protects the entire population, including the vulnerable. Lockdowns are unlikely to work and may even be counterproductive. Fear of insufficient IC capacity often proved unnecessary.
The effect of lockdowns from the ‘flatten the curve’ strategy is anything but proven. The data from the few countries in which lockdowns were only taken after reaching group immunity (China) or not at all (Sweden) give reason to conclude that countries without lockdown do not experience a substantially different influenza curve than other countries.
A slowdown in group immunity due to lockdowns may even be negative: it causes the vulnerable to be exposed to the virus for a longer period of time and opens up the possibility (if group immunity is actually not sufficiently built up due to the lockdowns) that the epidemic will reappear. In addition, the psychosomatic consequences of the lockdown for the elderly and sick have not yet even been quantified, but the isolation and isolation of loved ones could also affect the course of the disease.
“Corona is much more deadly and contagious than Influenza”
5. Probably incorrect: research suggests that Corona probably has a mortality rate of 0.05–0.1%, or comparable or lower than Influenza
The figures for infectivity are still very unreliable, as are those for the number of Corona victims, as discussed earlier. Contagiousness is monitored on the basis of the increase in the absolute number of ‘cases’ in a country. But do not discount the increase in the total number of tests taken. This is not a good indication of ‘contamination’ of entire populations. The situations in which a relatively good picture of total populations was available (Iceland), supplemented with data from other European countries, gives a picture of a mortality that we found normal for Influenza year in year out without any ‘measure’.
“It’s not about the number of deaths, it’s about the IC capacity”
6. Sophism: in the end the IC problem is also about mortality; what would happen if all ICs became overcrowded? And everyone would die?
This scenario is similar to what happened in certain regions of Italy. In order to estimate the seriousness of the situation, the figures are used. Imagine that all the people who would not be able to go to the ICs would, in theory, have had another 1,000 victims in the Netherlands. Adding these to the ‘Corona deaths’ that have already been counted, one arrives at the order of magnitude of the risk or importance. This order of magnitude is therefore still extremely similar to other years.
ICU respiration may have worsened the condition of ICU patients. It is interesting to take note of very recent research (also by the Dutch research team affiliated with Radboud University) that concluded that many of the deceased in the ICUs (probably also in Italy and now in NYC) may have developed extra complications as a result of the — well-meant — treatment, including ventilation and medication in the ICU’s. In addition to the extra mortality due to treatment instead of the underlying condition, this may also have caused the ‘Corona-typical’ long period that patients had to remain in ICU and did not get better.
Moreover, ICU being overwhelmed is not at all a Corona-only event.
It happens. It happened in all US states, as reported by TIME magazine in Januari 2018, also in the flu season of 2017/18. And before that. Multiple states declared a ‘state of emergency’ and hastily erected surge tents to treat flu patients. And it happende almost every flu season in Spain and Italy. And there is plenty of media-coverage in the last years to back that up. Check here, and here and here, and here and here.
So, flooded ICU’s are a long existing problem of organising adequate medical care, not a problem that is cause by an extraordinary dangerous Corona virus.
“#staythefuckathome, #flattenthe curve and listen to the government and the experts. # Anyone who says otherwise is fake-news”.
7. Inadvisable: the lockdowns are likely to have unprecedented socioeconomic consequences and therefore also for public health, loss of life years and quality of life (poverty kills) in the coming years.
The consequences of the lockdowns seem to be incredibly greater than the problems they are trying to prevent. Tens of millions of people will become unemployed. Tens of millions of (mainly smaller) companies will go bankrupt. The (development of) quality of life of our populations will decline in the coming years, life expectancy will be affected, life years will be lost.
These consequences seem not to have been quantified, not considered or at least never discussed, considered or even communicated in the political domain.
8. In other words, panic is a poor counsellor. Just like a population of ‘like-minded’ experts who solely advise our governments.
Fear is the strongest motivator. And panic is the worst counselor. The media seek, magnify and create this fear and panic and strengthen the uniformity of image and opinion about every ‘crisis’. Only one opinion is allowed, all other opinions are fake-news, conspiracies or otherwise undesirable. Whereas in a crisis like this one the diversity of opinions, backgrounds and expertise should be bundled in a discourse in which the difference should be felt as an opportunity to better assess the situation and choose possible responses.
A growing group of experts is now speaking out against the false fear of the ‘killer virus’ that must be ‘fought’ at all costs.
Absolute recommendation: do you have a quarter of an hour, watch this video of Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg
It’s useful to actually try to understand the Corona virus. In the context of all other about 100 flu viruses, Rhino viruses, Influenza viruses. In the context of other years. In context of tests and measurements. And what we’re actually measuring.
Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg is eminently qualified to speak out on this matter. He is an expert on content based on his experience as a lung specialist, and especially on his experiences from national and international institutes and the earlier worldwide fear because of the (SARS-Cov-1.5 or) MERS virus. Dr. Wodarg has had the same position from the beginning of this ‘crisis’, a position he still holds and which seems to be supported by all the facts. Amazing that the international ‘experts’ who then (MERS) predicted a global mega disaster and were thus completely wrong, are the same ones who now seem to be the leading experts of the international community again. Those whose estimates turned out to be correct then, are the same ones that are now being dismissed as ‘fake new’ and ‘disinformation’.
Apart from all the details, what am I really worried about?
Perhaps most worrying, the precarious balance between individual and government can thus be fundamentally disturbed within days. And too few people seem to realise this, to worry about it, or to include it in their considerations.
Within days or weeks, a (manifestly incorrectly founded) fear can arise with a scientific, political and media context in which only 1 vision is allowed, only 1 vision is embraced and only 1 vision is imprinted in infinity in the minds of the public (and thus also governments). In which the objective truth no longer applies. But panic, fear and opportunism are leading for the choices that are made.
And the media? They blow the fear to the maximum. Incessantly. Unsubtle. Uninterested. And often unsubstantiated. And seemingly undisturbed by any sense of responsibility about her role and the impact of her actions. That should worry us.
On which basis are governments and ‘big tech’ companies allowed to determine for us what is ‘true’ and what is not? What expertise do governments and big-tech companies have to make this assessment?
Impact because of measures, not because of Corona.
People are no longer allowed to travel, no longer to go outside, no longer to work. In some countries the army is deployed to ‘guard’ the public space. Governments join forces with ‘big tech’ companies to determine what is true and what is not, which expert is allowed to stay on Youtube, which are shown, which not. Which Twitter account tells ‘fake news’ and which ‘the right news’.
Governments are loosening (patient) privacy because of the Great Overwhelming Fight against ‘the killer virus’. On what basis are governments and companies allowed to determine for us what is ‘true’ and what is not? What substantive expertise do governments and big-tech companies have to make that assessment? Who gives them that right?
And then? — Let me tell you what I really fear…
And so people get scared of each other. They regard each other as a potential risk instead of as a potential dance partner. People become afraid of the ordinary things. Angry at the other person when he or she walks too close, goes for a bike ride, a walk or — God forbid — take a breath of fresh air at the beach? #staythefuckathome we then proudly and virtue signalling insta-shout to eachother.
A world in which we can be made afraid of each other in no time — on the basis of a phantom — is not a world we should want to move into. A world in which only one opinion is allowed and all other opinions are suppressed is reminiscent of the very dark chapters of our common history. And is a world that no longer moves forwards, but backwards.
A world that out of fear of its own words, its own panic and its own blind focus on stats, counters and ‘Breaking News’ can no longer see what ailment is and what the remedy is. And thus severely damages its own economy and thus the basis for the well-being of its own citizens. A world that allows people to get used to an inhuman life, in which ‘social distancing’ would be the new norm, in which elderly people die alone, in which cancer patients are not treated because empty ICU departments are waiting for disaster and in which children are no longer allowed to play with each other and families no longer have to visit each other.
That is the world we are strangely creating together.
Unfortunately without any reason.
Happy Easter, dear people
13 April 2020
Stefan Noordhoek, Bussum
father of Stijn and Jip, friend of Jasmin
brother, son, cousin, colleague, client, friend and neighbour