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We Need Better Data Before Trusting Most Things Anyone Says About Wuhan Virus


“I don’t trust society to protect us, I have no intention of placing my fate in the hands of men whose only qualification is that they managed to con a block of people to vote for them.”—Don Corleone, “The Godfather”

As we are hunkered down, my wife reminded me and our son that men of a certain age (mine) often sum up events in quotes from “The Godfather.” Her astute observation made me remember that Don Corleone loathed the political class, even as he strived, often with great success, to control them.

In the time of the Wuhan virus, we should remind ourselves that we are trusting our collective fates to the exhortations and exclamations of politicians, media, academics, and a public health establishment that have spent almost four years on the frontlines of the #NotMyPresident movement. Many of the claims being made about how the Wuhan virus is the plague for our times are founded on remarkably weak data sets that are intentionally manipulated to foment fear.

When estimating the impact of an infectious disease on a population, it is vital to know at least four important data sets:

  • People exposed to the virus who do not get infected. The president himself falls into this category. When people are exposed but don’t get infected, given that we do not have innate immunity, we need to know much more about the duration and intensity of exposure to deduce what behaviors and interactions are actually risky.
  • People exposed to the virus who are infected (i.e., carriers) but don’t get sick. To know the data for this group and the one above, periodic random sampling and epidemiologic surveys are necessary.
  • People who are exposed, infected, and get sick. Within this group, there are three additional strata to know: mildly ill, seriously ill, and critically ill.
  • People who are exposed, infected, get sick, and die. We already have data pointing to high-risk groups such as the elderly and immunocompromised. There will also obviously be outliers, just as there are every year when younger, ostensibly healthy people die unexpectedly of the flu.
    The disaster occurring in Italy is not unexpected; it is the natural result of combining a nationalized health-care system with an elderly population and slowly implemented travel controls. Japan, which has a population older than Italy’s, is not suffering nearly as much. Why not? Because of a powerful clamp down on travel.

We have almost no credible information about the first two of the four groups listed above, because we are not randomly sampling and surveying in areas that are most heavily affected, such as the international gateway cities and their surrounding communities. By concentrating on testing primarily people who meet specific criteria (e.g., symptoms and travel history), the death rate looks scary because the denominator is small.

Even the way information is presented and uncritically reported inflames and scares: 2.2 million Americans will die; 100,000 Ohioans infected; 150 million Americans will get the virus. Erika Edwards of NBCNews waits until the end of her article before reporting that severe cases and deaths are not the norm, and that 80 percent of people who get sick do just fine. Models and projections are only as credible as their assumptions (see man-made global warming, by Al Gore), and we have no idea whether our present models are projecting accurately.

China’s ‘Data’ Is Worthless

China, which gave us the virus, claims known cases have leveled off in the four months since patient zero at 81,000 in a population of 1.4 billion people, for a prevalence rate of 0.0057 percent. Their official mortality number is that Wuhan has caused 3,260 deaths, which is 0.03  percent of the more than 10 million deaths in China each year.

China also claims it did not steal American intellectual property, did not imprison Uighur Muslims, and did not try to destroy political freedoms in Hong Kong. You can believe what you will from China, but it might be wise to lean on the old Russian proverb “doveryai, no proveryai”—trust, but verify. I see no one undertaking the onerous task of data verification in the Middle Kingdom.

Democratic governors, mayors, and their public health trolls have placed the blame for the virus at the foot of the president instead of where it belongs: in an authoritarian third-world state with a per-capita economic product that is less than one-fourth of West Virginia’s—ironically, the last state to show a case of Wuhan flu. China’s communist government not only lied about the eruption of the virus but willfully exported it to the civilized world. What better way to dismantle the presidency it loathes? The lesson to be learned is that we cannot trust opaque totalitarian regimes.

Smart Decisions Don’t Come From Garbage Data

Had the White House shut down travel from China in early January, when it was clear that something was very wrong in Wuhan, it would have been not just right, but prescient. That would have been a true victory for public health in the United States, even if it had inconvenienced tens of thousands of travelers. Instead, we have turned a $20 trillion economy on its head, endangered the livelihoods of tens of millions, and appear ready to use this crisis as an Obama-esque wealth redistribution scheme.

This is a time for caution and personal responsibility, but a strategic public health response is not built upon hysterics, half-baked data sets, and political motivations. Really, how much effort does it take to doubt our health policy machinations?

Our vaunted Public Health Service once let hundreds of poor black men die of syphilis even after penicillin was a proven cure; the ignorance and indolence of the Veterans Administration devastates the lives of men and women who have sacrificed quite enough for us; more than 20 years after publication of “To Err is Human,” researchers now believe medical errors kill about a quarter-million Americans each year, more than 2.5 times the first estimate. And, of course, there is the biggest health policy lie of all: the Affordable Care Act would insure everyone, lower costs, improve quality, and rationalize the irrational health-care industry.

The most important, and unstated, assumption underlying many Wuhan virus models and pronouncements is that this is the long-sought tool to overturn Trump’s 2016 election. Is there any economic or human cost that would give pause to the coastal intelligentsias and their histrionics as long as it evicts Trump from the Oval Office?

The same cabal that has spent the last decade telling us all there is an “epidemic” of gun violence in America, even though the gun homicide rate has fallen 50 percent in 25 years and is still falling, is engaging in a political con no one wants to talk about. Aeschylus was right: truth really is the first casualty of war.