In 1968, at the height of the last great influenza pandemic, at least a million people worldwide died, including 100,000 Americans. That year A.M.M. Payne, a professor of epidemiology at Yale University, wrote:
In the conquest of Mount Everest anything less than 100% success is failure, but in most communicable diseases we are not faced with the attainment of such absolute goals, but rather with trying to reduce the problem to tolerable levels, as quickly as possible, within the limits of available resources…
That message is worth repeating because the schism between those seeking “absolute goals” versus those seeking “tolerable levels” is very much evident in the current pandemic. On September 21, the BMJ reported that opinion among UK scientists is divided as to whether it is better to focus on protecting those most at risk of severe COVID, or imposing lockdown for all.
One group of 40 scientists wrote a letter to the chief medical officers of the UK suggesting that they should aim to “suppress the virus across the entire population”.
In another letter, a group of 28 scientists suggested that “the large variation in risk by age and health status suggests that the harm caused by uniform policies (that apply to all persons) will outweigh the benefits”. Instead, they called for a “targeted and evidence-based approach to the COVID-19 policy response”.
A week later, science writer Stephen Buranyi wrote a piece for the Guardian arguing that the positions in the letter with 28 authors represent those of a small minority of scientists. “The overwhelming scientific consensus still lies with a general lockdown,” he claimed.
A few days later, over 60 doctors wrote another letter saying: “We are concerned due to mounting data and real world experience, that the one-track response threatens more lives and livelihoods than Covid-lives saved.”
This back and forth will undoubtedly continue for some time yet, although those involved will hopefully begin to see opposing scientific views and opinions as a gift and an opportunity to be sceptical and learn, rather than as a “rival camp”.
Scientific consensus takes time
There are issues, such as global warming, where there is scientific consensus. But consensuses take decades, and COVID-19 is a new disease. Uncontrolled experiments in lockdown are still ongoing, and the long-term costs and benefits are not yet known. I very much doubt that most scientists in the UK have a settled view on whether pub gardens or universities campuses should be closed or not. People I talk to have a range of opinions: from those who accept that the disease is now endemic, to those who wonder if it can still be eradicated.