Irish Examiner View: Covid-19 - The fine lines between science and guesswork

Irish Examiner View: Covid-19 - The fine lines between science and guesswork

As we’re nowhere near being out of the woods, it’s far too early for even the first rough drafts of the miserable history of the Codiv-19 disaster.

In time, though, we might find out what medication was on Mr Trump when he suggested that injecting disinfectant might have been a remedy, albeit adding the helpful caveat — for those who thought he might be — that he was not a physician.

Perhaps it was the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine he says he’s taking but shouldn’t be!

The interest the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has taken in the battle against the virus will be applauded if the $100m contribution it has made to finding vaccine research turns out to have been pivotal but, surely, eyebrows were raised when on April 30 Mr Gates published this on his Gates-Notes blog: “Dr. Anthony Fauci [a leading member of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force] thinks it’ll take around eighteen months to develop a coronavirus vaccine.

"I agree with him, though it could be as little as nine months or as long as two years.”

It pays to hedge your bets if you’re not a doctor, at least not a medical one. Mr Gates has an honorary law degree (Harvard), which doesn’t cut it as a qualification to offer opinions on matters of medicine.

As co-founder of Microsoft, of course, his expertise in combatting, not always successfully, computer viruses quite another matter.

The now all-too-familiar assurance governments trot out when issuing guidance or passing laws unprecedented in peacetime, that they are “following the science”, sounds re-assuring until it’s realised that the science doesn’t always point in the same direction.

When a question is put to four scientists, it’s not unknown to get five different answers, the fifth being an honest Don’t Know, especially when they are dealing, as they are now, with a new and deadly pathogen.

Physical distancing is unarguably commonsense and has played a part in curbing the spread of infections.

But on what unquestionable science is our two metre rule based?

In what way, if any, does the scientific advice heeded by our government differ from that accepted in the US and Japan, where rule is 1.8m, or Australia and the Netherlands, where it’s 1.5m?

In Sweden, where there’s been no lockdown at all and where the economy hasn’t been thrown into the freezer, it’s the World Health Organisation’s recommended 1m, as it is in Austria, Denmark, France, Norway and Italy.

The American Institute of Physics suggests a safer measure might be closer to 6m, having found that given a 4km/h breeze, saliva droplets can travel more than five metres in five seconds.

It was said at first that the virus is spread only by coughs and sneezes, but a scientist in California has suggested that particles expelled when simply breathing and talking could be infectious.

Bus and train passengers in Denmark have been told they can sit next to each other provided they are looking straight ahead, which means physical distancing on Denmark’s public transport comes down from metres to centimetres.

Irish Examiner View: Covid-19 - The fine lines between science and guesswork

A possible explanation for these differences has come from a member of the committee on whose scientific advice the British government has based its containment policies.

Graham Medley is professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, so it’s reasonable to assume he knows whereof he speaks.

In a little reported lecture at Cambridge University on May 11, he said the mathematical models on which the UK’s Covid-19 plan was the product of “educated guesswork, intuition and experience”.

He used a satirical Private Eye cartoon to illustrate the problem.

A scientist with a graph indicating Covid cases is saying: “We have, according to the revised projection of the adopted figures, something more or less approaching no idea.”

If a government’s science advisers are in such doubt, is it surprising that — as Prof Medley also reveals — when scientists attempt to explain their findings to ministers and civil servants, they are met with “blank faces”?

This isn’t to suggest we can apportion blame to those desperately seeking a solution; the scientists are up against an as yet unfamiliar killer and politicians face both an extraordinarily severe public health threat and economic meltdown.

However confident they must attempt to appear, they are more often than not taking stab after stab in the dark.

It’s as well to remember that, as they wrestle with the decisions that must be made to ease our way back to something resembling normality and talk about following the science, there could well be less to it than meets the eye.

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