Is the mainstream media lying to you about coronavirus?

Recently, I discovered that an acquaintance — someone I once knew rather well — had become active in politics. Interested in their motivation, I listened to an interview given over the last few weeks, where they said that they felt that the reporting of the COVID-19 pandemic, by government organisations and the mainstream media, has been done in such a way as to make things sound more frightening than they really are. They suggested that this messaging is driven by a global agenda, although they didn’t specify what they believe that agenda is.

It turns out that the political movement with which my acquaintance is aligned, has an anti-lockdown focus. Now, personally I believe that while the public health measures that have been introduced in response to the pandemic may have varying levels of effectiveness — and that they should always be open for debate — they are not generally an over-reaction to the situation with which we are faced.

In a personal communication with my acquaintance, they suggested that I had been carried along by mainstream media and had failed to apply critical thinking. Well, this isn’t the first time someone has accused me of something like this. Yet I pride myself on my research and critical thinking skills — I began to wonder if I really was missing something. Is the COVID-19 pandemic less severe than media outlets and government organisations are leading us to believe?

I mean, messaging is always laden with meaning. We humans are nearly all, nearly always, trying to persuade each other of our point of view when we speak or write, whether we do this consciously or unconsciously. In the case of government, a huge amount of conscious thought is given to how messaging is put across. This is nothing new. I think we are all familiar with the concept of propaganda.

But is there really a concerted global campaign going on, to frighten people into submitting to measures introduced by their governments for the purpose of controlling them?

Of course, you’re free to draw your own conclusions, but if you’re interested in how I came to mine (spoiler alert: I haven’t changed my mind), here are some of the questions I worked through along the way.

1. Why should we be reacting to the emergence of COVID-19 in such an extreme way, when the disease is likely to cause mild illness or even no illness at all, in many people?

Because the disease is so unpredictable. Yes, it is more likely to cause serious illness in people in older age groups or with underlying health conditions. But it can cause serious illness in younger people and there doesn’t appear to be any clear way to predict how an individual may be affected.

Also because, if a lot of people get sick at the same time, the resources needed to treat them can be seriously stretched. And when this happens, people with other illnesses may struggle to access treatments too.

2. But the numbers don’t stack up…

It’s impressive how the pandemic has seen such a rise in interest in data science and statistics, but really however you stack the figures — whether you look at cases, hospital admissions, deaths with COVID-19 on the death certificate, deaths within 28 days of a test, or excess deaths — the pandemic is happening and it is having a profound global impact. Nobody is making this stuff up.

The virus causing it is a novel coronavirus, SARS-COV2. It’s worth noting thats scientists are not surprised by this. They have been monitoring the emergence of new infections diseases for years, anticipating the emergence of a mutated pathogen, likely from an animal source, with the ability to be transmitted between people. Check out the PREDICT programme, established in 2009.

The key word here is novel. SARS-COV2 is new. So there’s little point in comparing the number of deaths related to COVID-19 to those related to pre-existing diseases because the whole point here is that this is as well as those diseases, not instead of them. When we are dealing with the emergence of a new disease, it may make more sense to compare it with other natural disasters like earthquakes, than with endemic diseases.

3. Surely if we keep on testing for this virus, we’ll keep finding it? We’ll never get to zero cases and we’ll never get back to ‘normal’.

The short answer to this question is yes, we will keep finding it. Because there are no tests which do not produce any false positive results.

A false positive result is when the test says you are positive for the virus but in fact you are not. So if we test for SARS-COV2 forever, we will never completely stop finding it, even if it is completely eradicated.

But there is a longer answer. It is based on the fact that we have a good idea of the rate at which false positive results occur. So we can work out the level of infection at which the tests become less useful.

Look at it this way, say that of all the results obtained by a test, 0.5% are likely to be false positives. If you conduct 1000 tests, 5 of them will be (wrongly) positive.

If half of the population is infected with a virus, and your test has a sensitivity of 70% (which means it will that means that it will pick up 70% of cases), then you will get 350 true positive results. So, of your 355 positive results, only 5 (0.3%) will be false positives. Seems like a pretty good test.

But if only 1% of the population is infected with the virus, and you use exactly the same test, you will only get 7 true positive results. Of your 12 positive results, 5 will still be false positives. That means that 42% of your positive results are false! At this stage, it might be better to consider only testing people who are showing symptoms, to make your results more meaningful.

It’s also worth considering that in the case of SARS-COV2, we are not likely to be aiming for zero cases, certainly not any time soon. Rather, I think that we are trying to reduce the damage that this new virus causes while we work out how to live with it.

One other point to remember is that testing has at least two uses. Firstly, it tracks the number of cases and where they are occurring, helping inform strategies for limiting spread (’test and trace’). Secondly, if PCR testing is carried out, genetic material is obtained, which can be used to track the emergence of variants of concern.

4. Well, what exactly are ‘variants of concern’? Are they just made up to frighten us into doing what we are told?

Viruses mutate. They mutate rapidly and frequently. Sometimes, a mutation gives a virus an ‘advantage’, making it more transmissible.

If a mutated virus is more transmissible between people, it has an ‘advantage’ over viruses without the mutation. It will spread further, faster. It may become the dominant variant (the one that is picked up most frequently when we test people for SARS-COV2).

When new variants are picked up through testing, we are interested in them for a number of reasons:

  • We want to know if they can infect people who have immunity to other variants. If so, they may be a particular risk to people who were hoping that they had immunity, perhaps because they have previously been infected with another variant of the virus or because they had been vaccinated with a vaccine which stimulates immunity to another variant. Scientists talk about immune escape variants, meaning variants which can escape the immune responses people have developed against other variants.
  • We want to know if they are likely to cause more serious disease. This is a concern because it raises the likelihood that a person who is exposed to the viral variant may become seriously ill.
  • We want to know if the variant is more transmissible than previous variants. This is a concern because a more transmissible variant can infect more people in a shorter space of time.

So, variants of concern are variants with the potential to be 1) more transmissible and/or 2) cause more severe disease and/or 3) escape immune responses we’ve built up to previous variants. They are often newly identified variants, so we don’t always know, in the beginning, just how concerned we ought to be about any of those three possibilities.

5. And the million dollar question; should I get the vaccine?

Good grief, I’m just writing a blog here. I can’t possibly answer a complex medical question like that. You need to talk to a registered healthcare professional, either at or prior to your vaccination appointment. They can help you to weigh up any risks of getting vaccinated against the benefits for you in your individual context.

What I can tell you is that the vaccines are designed to boost immunity to SARS-COV2. They should hopefully reduce your chances of becoming severely ill if you come into contact with the virus. There is also mounting evidence that vaccines can reduce the transmission of SARS-COV2, so by getting vaccinated you may reduce the chances that you will spread the virus to others.

And finally…

If you are unhappy with the measures your government is taking to tackle the government, that is absolutely fair enough. Shout about it, generate debate. All of that stuff. My self, I think that lockdown sucks, for all manner of reasons. I also understand that masks can be problematic. But we are still learning how to deal with this thing and nobody has any perfect answers.

I don’t believe it’s helpful to get caught up in theorising and forget the human beings involved. People who are at risk of getting ill or dying from a disease which didn’t exist 2 years ago. Should we be looking for ways to reduce those risks? How can we not?

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