Sunday, November 26, 2023

Britain's Covid Inquiry has unmasked the flaws in trusting ‘the science’

There is something therapeutic and healing in watching Professor Chris Whitty give evidence to the independent public inquiry into the Covid pandemic – the sense of calm emanating from the man, his occasionally Panglossian self-satisfaction, his refusal to become anything more than barely ruffled even when his interlocuters gently venture forth the suggestion: ‘Overreaction?’ The impression one gets, or perhaps is supposed to get, is of a very clever, terribly rational man in a world full of thicko scumbags.

This lack of debate was exacerbated in the country at large by that curse of our age, political polarisation

I watch a little daytime TV at the moment as part of my rest and recuperation programme following that car crash I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. More usually it is one of the quiz shows, such as Tipping Point, where the contestants are from the very opposite end of the intellectual scale to Chris and can only enrage with their stupidity. No, Shenille – sadly, Tony Blair was not prime minister at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar. Listening to Whitty’s comforting emollience, I can almost feel my hitherto distraught muscles knitting back together, repairing themselves, filling with blood and blooming. He is like a very expensive balm.

What we learn from this inquiry – that the scientists are convinced we should have imposed lockdown earlier and harder, for example – is maybe less interesting than what one might read between the lines. Or, as those scientists would disdainfully put it, speculation. The first and most obvious thing is the withering contempt in which the scientists held the politicians, which must surely have made the management of the pandemic more problematic than it needed to be.

We can infer this from the testimony of the former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, for example. With scarcely disguised scorn, Vallance suggested that science was not Boris Johnson’s ‘forte’ and that the then prime minister needed to have fairly simple graphs explained to him over and over again until he finally grasped the point. This contempt occasionally broke cover during that long, rather wonderful summer of 2020, not least over Rishi Sunak’s fairly ridiculous Eat Out to Help Out scheme, with newspapers reporting disquiet among the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) at one or other governmental misstep. In fairness to the scientists, they were dealing with a government which had chosen the intellectual titan Matt Hancock to be in charge of the country’s health, which he did with a kind of messianic idiocy.

The second is the make-up of that very committee, Sage – the people who for a year or so effectively became our unelected government. Its membership was rather closely confined and, during cross-examination, Whitty admitted that at first it was probably too narrow in its membership. According to him it later became much broader, but when asked more specifically about who might have been co-opted to give a differing view, he channelled Dr Pangloss again and suggested that in theory an infinite number of scientists might have been invited to provide their expertise, but that too many voices would have made consensus more difficult to achieve. Hmm – this is rather the problem, the nature of that consensus. Whitty admitted – indeed stated almost with pride – that no economists had been consulted, for example.

The issue here is that too great a proportion of the scientists had intellectual skin in the game. Science is perhaps mankind’s greatest achievement, but we sometimes forget that it is practised by humans, with all their frailties and inclinations. The point being that Sage may have been providing the government with advice with which all or most epidemiologists might concur – but without the corrective advice that might be provided by an economist or, for that matter, an oncologist. The advice was always about the immediate, and while Whitty insisted that he and his colleagues were at pains to alert ministers to the potential downsides of action taken to prevent the spread of the virus, we might infer that those downsides were flagged up with rather less avidity than would have been the case if the committee had heard from one or two dissenting voices from different scientific disciplines.

This lack of debate was exacerbated in the country at large by that curse of our age, political polarisation: many of those who might have raised a warning about the long-term effects of sequential lockdowns – the teachers, for example – were too often ideologically committed to what became the leftish view that no lockdown could possibly be sufficiently stringent and they should continue ad infinitum. We have seen more recently the effect this has had on schoolchildren.

Faced with this, one understands a little better the mindset which seems to have established itself in our politicians, including the mindset which led them to enjoy riotous parties when everybody else was confined to barracks. They were given advice which was far, far too narrow and, put simply, they didn’t entirely trust it. Vallance remarked that Johnson had particular difficulty understanding the consequences of government interventions (such as lockdowns) on the spread of the virus. My suspicion is the former PM was at heart deeply sceptical – for ideological as well as perfectly rational reasons – about these interventions and needed convincing that he was being told the
unvarnished truth.

In short, it was a government that had pledged to ‘follow the science’ but was always doubtful about its veracity. The final break came when Johnson refused to impose a lockdown during the Christmas of 2021, a decision which history suggests was unquestionably correct: the scientists at the time begged to differ and of course the Scots went their own way. The lesson to be learned, I reckon, is that it is no use following the science if the science comes from only one direction and there is no open debate about its efficacy or otherwise./>


Virology poses a far greater threat to the world than AI

Matt Ridley

Sam Altman, the recently fired (and rehired) chief executive of Open AI, was asked earlier this year by his fellow tech billionaire Patrick Collison what he thought of the risks of synthetic biology. ‘I would like to not have another synthetic pathogen cause a global pandemic. I think we can all agree that wasn’t a great experience,’ he replied. ‘Wasn’t that bad compared to what it could have been, but I’m surprised there has not been more global coordination and I think we should have more of that.’

He is right. There is almost no debate about regulating high-risk virology, whereas the world is in a moral panic about artificial intelligence. The recent global summit at Bletchley Park essentially focused on how to make us safe from Hal the malevolent computer. Altman has called for regulation to stop AI going rogue one day, telling Congress: ‘I think if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong… we want to be vocal about that. We want to work with the government to prevent that from happening.’

Bad actors worldwide know how easy it would be to use virology to bring the world economy to its knees

In contrast to that still fairly remote risk, the threat the world faces from research on viruses is far more immediate. There is strong evidence that Covid probably started in a laboratory in Wuhan. To summarise: a bat sarbecovirus acutely tuned to infecting human beings but not bats, which contains a unique genetic feature of a kind frequently inserted by scientists, caused an outbreak in the one city in the world where scientists were conducting intensive research on bat sarbecoviruses. That research involved bringing the viruses from distant caves, recombining their genes and infecting them into human cells and humanised transgenic mice; three of the scientists got sick but no other animals in the city did.

Yet calls to regulate this frankly idiotic corner of virology – gain-of-function research on potential pandemic pathogens – are met with libertarian shrieks of outrage from scientists that even the new President of Argentina would be embarrassed by: leave us alone, we know what we are doing! Most of us were blissfully unaware that a small handful of virologists were being handed huge sums by the US and Chinese governments to see if they could find a virus capable of causing the next pandemic and bring it to a big city, then juice it up in a low–biosafety lab. Only governments, by the way, would fund that kind of work: no venture capitalist would touch it.

Yet now, compared with four years ago, the risk from such research is bigger, not smaller. Even if the recent pandemic did not begin in the Wuhan lab, the fact it could have done has alerted bad actors worldwide to how easy it would be to use virology to bring the world economy to its knees. From Pyongyang to Tehran to Moscow, ears have pricked up. The research proposal writes itself: ‘Dear Kim/Khamenei/Vladimir, if we don’t do this research our enemies will. Please can we hire some virologists and start sampling bats?’

It’s not just rogue regimes thinking this way. So are criminals. Last month, in Fresno, California, police arrested a Chinese national, who had changed his name multiple times, on charges of selling misbranded Covid-19 tests. That allegation is the tip of the iceberg. According to a report from a congressional committee, the man – part of a transnational criminal enterprise funded from China and on the run from a court ruling in Canada – was operating a large, chaotic, secret laboratory in which were found samples of viruses including Covid, HIV, hepatitis B and C, dengue and rubella, plus, according to a label on a freezer, ebola. Oh, and a thousand genetically engineered mice.

When the story first surfaced, after a council officer in the small town of Reedley in California spotted a garden hose leading into the warehouse, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seemed remarkably uninterested. The CDC declined to test some of the samples before they were destroyed, so we do not know whether there was ebola in that freezer or not. The media moved to damp down ‘conspiracy theories’ that this was a Chinese government operation to start another pandemic. All those transgenic mice, the Associated Press told us, were ‘simply used to grow antibody cells to make test kits’. Right.

Even if he was just a rogue criminal with no connection to the Chinese government, it is alarming because, as the congressional committee put it, ‘a disturbing realisation is that no one knows whether there are other unknown biolabs in the US because there is no monitoring system in place [and] the US currently does not conduct oversight of privately funded research, including enhancement of potential pandemic pathogens’. There could be labs like this all over America, let alone Asia.

I find myself in a strange position here. I usually argue that regulation stifles innovation far more often than it encourages it, and that tying things like genetically modified crops up in impossible red tape has done great harm. Golden rice – genetically enhanced with vitamin A precursor – could have saved half a million lives a year in the 24 years since it was invented by the Swiss biotechnologist Ingo Potrykus, for example. But Greenpeace campaigned relentlessly against it, pushing governments to impose impossibly tight regulation, a stance that more than 150 Nobel Prize winners have condemned in strong words: ‘How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a “crime against humanity”?’

Yet when a genuine risk is posed by one small part of virology, those of us calling for more regulation are somewhat lonely. Led by Bryce Nickels of Rutgers University, a group of scientists have founded an organisation called Biosafety Now but they are getting scant support from the scientific establishment. Greenpeace has, as far as I can tell, said nothing about that irresponsible research in Wuhan.


New Zealand Government to End All COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

The incoming New Zealand government, under Prime Minister-elect Christopher Luxon, has brokered a historic deal with New Zealand First, led by Winston Peters, to terminate all COVID-19 vaccine mandates and establish an inquiry into the pandemic.

Although Employment New Zealand currently reports no government vaccine mandates at present, it acknowledges that some employers may still require vaccinations based on health and safety legislation.

During COVID-19, while Jacinda Ardern was prime minister, New Zealand introduced vaccine mandates for workers in certain settings and a vaccine pass for the public.

Chris Hipkins, who was a health minister during COVID-19, took over from Ms. Ardern as Prime Minister in January.

During the election campaign, he sparked a massive reaction online when he claimed "there was no compulsory vaccination."

In addition to ending vaccine mandates, an urgent and comprehensive independent COVID-19 inquiry will be conducted, featuring both local and international experts. The inquiry will look into how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled in New Zealand, including the use of multiple lockdowns and the efficiency of vaccine procurement.

Ahead of the election, Mr. Peters campaigned for possible vaccine compensation for those who lost their jobs or were proven injured by the vaccine.




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