On 29 June, the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings convened an online session titled ‘Corona: The Role of Science in Times of Crisis’. The participants included three Nobel Laureates:
- Professor Peter C. Docherty, an immunologist and pathologist from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996;
- Professor Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist from the Department of Physics at the University of California, USA, and a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011;
- Professor Michael Levitt, a biophysicist from the Department of Structural Biology in the School of Medicine at Stanford University, Chicago, USA, and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2013.
One of the claims made by the governments of the world to justify imposing the regulations and programmes of a biosecurity state on their populations is that they are ‘following the science’. By the same token, those who uncritically support these measures — in both mainstream and social media — claim that anyone who criticises or opposes them are ‘anti-science’. We thought what Professor Levitt said in refuting both these claims in this meeting was so important that I have made a transcript of his statements and publish them here. Links to Professor Levitt’s data analysis of the coronavirus may be found on the webpage of the Levitt Lab.
As a reader, you may wish to cite these statements by a Nobel Laureate and biophysicist of 33 years’ standing at a university currently ranked no. 2 in the world to challenge those who try to shut down and silence debate with such unfounded claims, which as Professor Levitt reveals are the exact opposite of the truth. As Professor Levitt states: it is not governments that are following the science; rather, it is politics that has ‘infected’ the scientists. By making the statements of eminent scientists with the courage to speak out against Government and media lies more widely known, it is our hope that the debate the people of Britain should be having will be opened to the knowledge we should be applying to this crisis, which goes far beyond a virus with the fatality rate of a severe flu, and which threatens the existence of our human rights, civil liberties and democratic politics.
‘My area of speciality is time-trajectories — of anything. I’ve been studying corona as a data scientist for 150 days already, basically working 18 hours a day, and focusing on the data. I’m going to leave aside economics, politics and media, and just simply talk about the science here.
‘This is the first time I’ve actually done real-time science; that is, putting out 30 reports in as many days. One thing that has struck me, once the virus moved from its China-Korea phase to the rest of the world at the beginning of March, is how totally inadequate science structure is for real-time science. People are insisting on refereed reports. No-one wants to share anything. The scientists are more panicked and scared of reality than anybody else. August institutions, like Lindau, The Royal Society, The National Academy of Science, have been totally silent. I am really disappointed. This has got nothing to do with the politics. As a group, scientists have failed the younger generation.
‘Deciding what to do in this situation is really, really difficult. We cannot rely on one or two voices. There should have been a committee formed, either by the Nobel Foundation, by Lindau, by The Royal Society, The National Academy, in the middle of February when this was coming down the road, and we should have discussed this.
‘Instead, we let economics and politics dedicate the science. And, for me, the worst opposition I got was from very, very prominent scientists who were so scared that the non-scientists would break quarantine and infect them. There was total panic. And the fact is that almost all the science we were hearing — for example, from organisations like the World Health Organisation — was wrong. We had Facebook censoring [views contrary to] the World Health Organisation.
‘This has been a disgraceful situation for science. We should have been talking with each other. Reports were released openly, shared by e-mail, and all I got back was abuse. Everything I said in that first six weeks was actually true. And for political reasons, we as scientists let our views be corrupted. The data had very clear things to say. Nobody said to me: “Let me check your numbers”. They all just said: “Stop talking like that”.
‘If we had initially talked to each other, not about opinions but about the data. What is the population infection ratio? What is the severity? Does this thing grow exponentially? There were some very, very simple questions. And it’s true that the epidemiologists were always saying that “we’re not epidemiologists”; but the fact is that viral cases and deaths follow a time trajectory, and I think that physicist and theoretical chemists who understand trajectories are way better qualified.
‘The epidemiologists made their normal error. Epidemiologists see their job not as getting things correct, but preventing an epidemic. So, therefore, if they say it’s a hundred times worse than it’s going to be, it’s okay. Their mistake was that we listened to them. They said the same thing for Ebola; they said the same thing for Bird Flu. No-one shut down for them.
‘We should never have listened to the epidemiologists. They have caused hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of suffering and damage, mainly on the younger generation. This is going to be a tragedy. It’s going to make 9/11 look like a baby story. This is much, much worse.’
‘I am not against lockdown. I’m against stupid lockdown without considering the full picture. That is, not just combating a virus that is exactly as dangerous as flu, but also avoiding the economic damage that every country has caused itself, except Sweden. We have really, really failed as a group. There have been smart people in Sweden, and that’s about it. Germany is getting re-infected because they cut down too strongly. The level of stupidity that’s been going on here has been amazing, and it just required a little bit of discussion of smart people.
‘I’m not saying I’m right. But I would like people to contradict me on the details. Why is it not exponential? I can show you. Why is the case and infection ratio this, not that? There is data for this. In other words, everything is data-driven, but people have chosen not to look at the data. In many places, the politics has infected the scientists. Certainly in the USA the politics has infected the scientists.’
‘I think the problem is not just science and public. It’s science to other scientists. Nobody ever said: “You’re saying this: can I check your numbers” This is something which any intelligent person could do themselves in a few days. Every science needs problems to be worked over. This is not quantum mechanics. There are simple, logical assumptions. And in the end they got discussed, but they got discussed so slowly and so late.
‘Remember, unlike most of science, everything has a very limited shelf-life. To predict that [the virus in] Italy is over today is very easy. To predict what was going to happen in Italy at the beginning of March was very difficult. And it would have helped Italy to know that they were going to have no more than 500 per million deaths, rather than what they were expecting.
‘I honestly do believe that even just two scientists talking would have been a great way to get this going. The one place that did have some intelligent conversation — but I only got involved in it very late — was the European Molecular Biology Lab. They had Friday afternoon Zoom conferences, but even these were very limited in extent. I think that, maybe, because we couldn’t meet, we didn’t have the chance to discuss. Committees are [made from] very diverse people, who are well-intentioned, are such smart devices, and they really can solve problems. I think we would together plan how to approach the public.
‘One final thing. The one good thing for me that came out of all of this was that, much to my own surprise, I discovered Twitter. And Twitter has much more intelligent conversation than the National Academy of Science, The Royal Society, Lindau or the Nobel Foundation. I actually said this in an early tweet. The criticism is wonderful, because [with] good science, you have to be able to stand up to criticism. Scientists expect to be torn apart. We circled the wagons against this, and it really, really hurt us.’
‘I’m not saying that corona is like flu. But It has exactly the same excess death and age-ranges as flu, and flu is a very serious disease, so I’m not undermining [the existence of] COVID. I also agree that there’s been really good work on the biochemistry and the medical science of this. There’s also been amazing developments in the actual treatment, so doctors now probably would save twice as many people who are ill. The people who are generally dying are the older people. The age mortality of people under 65 is exactly 8 per cent. Over 85 is 50 per cent. Those are exactly the same numbers that we see for flu.
‘I did want to say something about risk, and the Winton Centre [for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge]. In the middle of March, Sir David Spiegelhalter wrote a Medium review equating the risk of corona with the natural risk of dying. And basically, he concluded that the risk of corona, using numbers that were coming out of Imperial College London, were about one year’s worth of death. I immediately wrote back and said he was wrong. My analysis suggested that it was not one year’s worth of death, but one month’s worth of death.
‘I then tried to communicate this to Neil Ferguson [the leader of the team at Imperial College London whose exaggerated estimates of deaths from COVID-19 were the basis to the Government lockdown of the UK]. He ignored my e-mails. I got in touch with the head of the Royal Society, and eventually got them to read the e-mails; and in the end, they said: no, I was wrong, it is one year.
‘The fact is, two month’s later, the excess burden of death of corona is about three weeks of natural death. These scientists shut things down. The problem is not just with lack of communication with the public. Scientists are arrogant, and refuse to listen to people not in their fields. Scientists are getting away Scott-free for causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage, and this is something which cannot be allowed to happen.
‘It’s not just the World Health Organisation. Ferguson wanted Sweden to lock down, and got Britain to lock down. And when the numbers become normal, exactly what you would expect without lockdown, he then says: “Ah, it’s because of lockdown”. This is terrible science. This is science which should go on trial. Scientists cannot cause damage like this and refuse to listen.
‘The fact is that epidemiology and modelling has been a disgrace. They have not looked at the data. They have been wrong at every turn. We’re going to see that, although coronavirus is a different disease, the net impact of death is going to be very similar to severe flu. And it’s going to be that way without lockdown.
‘As regards one final thing. I think a policy like Australia’s may seem very smart, until you get second breaks and third breaks. Sweden is the only country that has done the right thing by heading for what they consider herd immunity. It occurs at 15 per cent, not 80 per cent — another error that the epidemiologists made. Sweden is going to end up with about 600 deaths per million.’
— Michael Levitt, Professor of Structural Biology at Stanford University since 1987, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2001, made a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2002, and received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2013.