I’ve had emails calling me evil,” says Dr Sunetra Gupta, the epidemiologist “flabbergasted” by the “vicious” response to her controversial anti-lockdown plan, the so-called Great Barrington Declaration.
“This is just science, this is what we do, and I don’t know that we put anything forward that is that extreme. We’re just saying we need a different, more permanent solution to kicking the can down the road.” Scientists are labelling the discord an outbreak of “outright nastiness”; commentators have gone for “scientists at war”.
Last Monday, the declaration, written by three professors — Gupta, a theoretical epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, Dr Martin Kulldorff, professor of medicine at Harvard and Dr Jay Bhattacharya, professor of Medicine at Stanford — called for the immediate resumption of “life as normal” for everyone except the “vulnerable” and focus on achieving “herd immunity”, a “similar model to Sweden”.
“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” they declared, citing tumbling childhood vaccination rates, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health. The results (to name a few) include greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Most agree normality won’t return until 2023. Gupta argues we can have it “in three to six months”.
The reception was frenzied. “The idea is… unethical and simply not possible,” wrote Professor Sir Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, this weekend. Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, called it “age-based apartheid”. “That’s everyone being polite”, says Dr Rupert Beale, a group leader at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “What everyone really thinks is, ‘this is all f***ing stupid’.”
As the Government gears up to introduce new social restrictions placing millions under localised lockdowns, the battle of a generation for the UK’s scientists is getting personal.
What are the camps? In spring, Lockdown 1.0 was dictated by Imperial College’s Professor Neil Ferguson and Sage (the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), including chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and the chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty (both of whom last month warned that, unchecked, the UK would reach 50,000 new daily cases by mid-October). It’s now emerged they advocated a two-week national lockdown last month.
Gupta’s counter-consensus began emerging in March. She and her colleagues in the Department of Zoology at Oxford ran a predictive model that assumed Covid-19 had arrived in the UK in January, a month earlier than thought. They argued that these extra weeks gave the virus enough time to spread to as much as two-thirds of the population, thus achieving a degree of herd immunity. Their research also assumed that only a small proportion of the population, just 0.1 per cent, would be at risk of hospitalisation.
Essentially it was a best-case to Imperial’s worst, suggesting key assumptions could be wrong. Beale labels Gupta’s March paper a “ridiculous” pre-print “not even passed by peer review”.
But it wasn’t the only doubt emerging. The investigative author Tom Bower has alleged neither Vallance nor Whitty challenged Ferguson’s model outright or “worst-case” predictions. By contrast, in a series of messages from Michael Levitt, a Stanford professor who would correctly predict the pandemic’s initial trajectory, Ferguson was warned that he had overestimated the potential death toll by 10 to 12 times.
Now, more rows. Gupta claims that the BBC asked her not to mention the declaration on The Victoria Derbyshire Show on Monday and that Google have censored searches of it in the UK. It was further undercut by the revelation that “Dr Johnny Banana” and “Dr Person Fakename” were among the 6,000-plus signatures.
Gupta, along with her co-authors, advocated for “focused protection” at a summit hosted by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank. Gupta finds the idea she’s libertarian “laughable” and insists she’s “even more Left than Labour”. Age-based apartheid? “We should have made clear that it’s temporary segregation not permanent,” admits Gupta.
Dr David Nabarro from the World Health Organisation nevertheless praised Gupta’s “important” work, telling world leaders to stop “using lockdowns as your primary control method”. Carl Heneghan, a GP and professor of evidence-based medicine at Oxford is another highly regarded supporter, an ultra-sceptic of what statistics can and cannot show who flagged the over-counting of deaths, under-counting of false positives and what comparisons between countries can tell us. Karol Sikora, an oncologist and former director of a WHO cancer programme is another.
“There’s a lot of other people who have also signed it and guess what, it’s the usual suspects,” says Beale. “It’s Karol Sikora who knows nothing about this whatsoever but who is endlessly self-promoting, and you’ve got Michael Levitt who’s got a bad case of Nobel Prize disease.”
A reported Imperial vs Oxford scientific rivalry also centres on Gupta (who has a sideline as a romantic novelist) and Ferguson. It is said Gupta’s application for a readership at Oxford was resisted 20 years ago by her senior, Sir Roy Anderson, on the grounds that she was being supported by another academic, with whom she was romantically involved.
Anderson retracted his allegation, apologised and paid Gupta £1,000, which she donated to Save the Children. He left to form the mathematical modelling team at Imperial, and became Ferguson’s mentor. Although they disagree, Ferguson describes Gupta as a “good friend”, while Gupta insists Ferguson is “one of the people I’ve had the most decent and rational conversations with all summer”.
Beale also disputes Gupta’s infection mortality rate model, and says Sweden’s low population density makes a comparison difficult. So “you’ve got someone who has a track record of saying stuff that is total rubbish, and then moving on to the next thing which is total rubbish, and she’s not being held to account. That makes people pretty annoyed.”
Anthony Brookes, a geneticist at the University of Leicester, and one of the first signatories of declaration, says: “I’ve definitely picked up a chill from colleagues who used to be very casual and relaxed with me.” He says one openly upbraided him as “irresponsible”; another emailed saying he was “putting lives at risk”. Why sign it? Brookes despairs of the “collateral damage” of state-mandated lockdowns.
Mike Hulme, a professor of human geography at Cambridge and another signatory, adds: “I’ve been frustrated that there hasn’t been a sufficiently open public debate in the UK.” “It is not, as some people are wanting to portray it, arguing for the other extreme: the ‘let it rip’ argument”, says Brookes. “It’s trying to tread a middle ground”.
He claims to have had conversations with Sage members (he won’t say who) that suggest a “panicked” lockdown policy was also influenced by the body’s own “at-risk” members; look to their average age, he says. He also questions Vallance’s qualifications. “Being a senior vice president at a drug company doesn’t give you the same background that others have. They’re seeing things in a non-sophisticated way.”
The elephant in the room is herd immunity. Gupta calls it “epidemiology 101”. Brookes says there’s no other way to explain the data from London he and other academics from across the country are reviewing. “How do we explain that [cases] went up very severely in London, much more than it did up North, then it came down over the summer, but it hasn’t come back in London. That’s herd immunity in London,” he says.
“I mean, it’s just ridiculous,” says Beale. “R is well above one in London, we’ve seen a very substantial increase in test positivity amongst healthcare workers, and two months ago there were basically zero people in our local hospitals with Covid now all of them have people in their ICUs.” That R isn’t higher is down to masks and social distancing, he says.
On the three-tier system of restrictions unveiled yesterday, Gupta says: “The same effort, if used to protect vulnerable people across all tiers, would cause fewer deaths, destroy fewer livelihoods and result in far less disruption to the education and wellbeing of the younger generation.” As a nation of nervous armchair epidemiologists, we’re only just learning to follow the science. If only there was just one “science” to follow.