Scientist behind U.S., U.K. lockdowns drastically lowers death estimate

By Art Moore

President Trump and his White House Coronavirus Task Force (White House photo)

The lead author of a dire coronavirus study cited by the White House, Downing Street and other governments in their decisions to urge or impose unprecendented lockdowns and “social distancing” has drastically revised the estimated death toll of the pandemic in the U.K.

The study by Imperial College of London published March 16 estimated that 2.2 million Americans and 500,000 Britons could die.

Now, lead author Neil Ferguson has testified to a parliamentary committee that the U.K. death toll is unlikely to exceed 20,000 and could be much lower, reported the website New Scientist.

And more than half that number would have died anyway by the end of the year, because of their age and underlying illnesses, he told the panel on Wednesday.

The massive revision has significant implications for how governments are handling the pandemic.

The Economist reported last Friday that as governments around the world were “scrambling to get a grip on the covid-19 pandemic,” the research by epidemiologists at Imperial College in London “helped change some of their approaches.”

But Ferguson, reporting the figures, told the parliamentary select committee on science and technology he’s “reasonably confident” that Britain’s National Health Service can cope when the predicted peak of the epidemic arrives in two or three weeks, New Scientist reported Wednesday.

An average of about 29,000 in the U.K. die every year of the flu and related complications.

At the daily briefing Thursday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, mentioned Ferguson’s dramatic downgrade of his estimate.

She said the predictions of models also “don’t match the reality on the ground in either China, South Korea or Italy.”

“Models are models. There’s enough data now of the real experience with the coronavirus on the ground, really, to make these predictions much more sound,” said Birx.

“So when people start talking about 20% of a population getting infected, it’s very scary,” she said. “But we don’t have data that matches that.”

Ferguson clarifies

Ferguson issued a clarification Thursday via Twitter, arguing his evidence to Parliament “referred to the deaths we assess might occur in the UK in the presence of the very intensive social distancing and other public health interventions now in place.”

“Without those controls, our assessment remains that the UK would see the scale of deaths reported in our study (namely, up to approximately 500 thousand),” he wrote.

However, no one in the U.S. or the U.K. was advocating at the time that no measures be taken to control the spread of the virus, points out Powerline blogger Paul Mirengoff.

“Some degree of social distancing and complete isolation of the sick were almost universally viewed as appropriate and, indeed, necessary,” he wrote.

“Yet, Ferguson’s projection became part of the basis, not just for social distancing and isolation of the sick, but for imposing lockdown style measures in some jurisdictions.”

And Ferguson acknowledged in an interview with the New York Times that a comprehensive lockdown is what he wanted.

“Based on our estimates and other teams’, there’s really no option but follow in China’s footsteps and suppress,” he said.

Mirengoff commented: “Perhaps this is why Ferguson waited so long to make it clear that, at least in the U.S., the Imperial College forecast that garnered so much attention from policy makers was a strawman.”

Cuomo questions isolate-everyone strategy

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in fact, is questioning the comprehensive lockdown strategy.

“We closed everything down. That was our public health strategy,” Cuomo said Thursday. “If you re-thought that or had time to analyze that public health strategy, I don’t know that you would say, ‘Quarantine everyone.'”

On Wednesday, he said the shelter-in-place policy may be backfiring by confining vulnerable older people with younger family members.

“I don’t even know that that was the best public health policy. Young people then quarantined with older people, [it] was probably not the best public health strategy,” he said. “The younger people could have been exposing the older people to an infection.”

Remarkable turn

Alex Berenson, a former reporter for the New York Times, wrote on Twitter of the “remarkable turn” by Ferguson, who now has tested positive for COVID 19 himself.

“Essentially, what has happened is that estimates of the viruses transmissibility have increased – which implies that many more people have already gotten it than we realize – which in turn implies it is less dangerous,” wrote Berenson.

The former Times reporter noted Ferguson credits the lockdown for the low figures, but the U.K. lockdown began only one day before his testimony Wednesday. In theory, Berenson points out, lockdowns take two weeks or more to show any impact.

Berenson commented: “Not surprisingly, this testimony has received no attention in the US – I found it only in UK papers. Team Apocalypse is not interested.”

80,000 Americans died of flu in 2017-18 season

In the U.S., meanwhile, forecasters at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine released a study Thursday estimating COVID-19 could lead to more than 80,000 deaths in the country by early April under the current lockdown conditions, Agence-France Presse reported.

“Our estimated trajectory of COVID-19 deaths assumes continued and uninterrupted vigilance by the general public, hospital workers, and government agencies,” said Christopher Murray, the director of the university’s

“The trajectory of the pandemic will change – and dramatically for the worse – if people ease up on social distancing or relax with other precautions,” he said.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 80,000 Americans died of flu and its complications during the previous winter, the highest death toll in at least four decades.

The current U.S. death toll for the coronavirus pandemic is 1,143, with 79,082 confirmed cases.

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