Scientists guiding UK and Sweden response to coronavirus are battling online over who was right

You’ve probably heard it a thousand times by now. Everyone is saying that coronavirus responses should be guided by science. What this overlooks is that the scientists don’t all agree with one another. In fact, leading scientists from the UK and Sweden have been calling each other out online over the very different approaches taken by those two countries.

You may remember that initially the UK seemed to be going for a herd immunity strategy. And then researcher Neil Ferguson presented his model which suggested hundreds of thousands of people would die if the UK stuck to that. And after seeing those numbers, Boris Johnson changed course and ordered a lockdown. Meanwhile, Sweden has stuck with a looser version of the lock down where social distancing is encouraged but bars and restaurants remain open.

The former chief epidemiologist for Sweden, Johan Giesecke, an internationally recognized expert who advises the World Health Organization, has been blasting away at the British government’s abrupt decision to reverse itself and mandate a complete lockdown on March 23…

Giesecke has been unusually blunt in calling the Ferguson model “not very good” and “overly pessimistic.” He noted it was neither peer-reviewed nor published in a scientific journal and said in a webinar briefing conducted by Chatham House, the London-based think tank, that he thought someone should write a book about “how a not very scientific paper changed the policy of an entire country.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Giesecke said the Imperial College forecasts were almost hysterical and the Ferguson paper so fundamentally flawed by debatable assumptions — for example, the percentage of people who were asymptomatic but still infectious — that “it loses all value” as a predictive tool…

Ferguson countered that the Swedish government made “a decision most other countries would not tolerate,” meaning to let the virus run more free. He said of Giesecke, “He’s basically saying we should allow all these old people to die — because he doesn’t believe we can keep these measures in place.”

But the truth is that so far, both countries have had high deaths among elderly patients in care homes and both look bad compared to some of their neighbors:

At this moment, Britain’s death toll of more than 30,000 is the highest in Europe. Meanwhile, deaths in Sweden are the highest in Scandinavia, with 3,000 killed by the virus so far. Britain’s population is 66 million, and Sweden’s is 10 million.

Comparing the two countries, Britain is reporting 451 deaths per million people. Sweden is at 314.

Neil Ferguson is no longer part of the advisory team guiding the British response. Earlier this week he resigned his position as the leading scientist in the group after the Telegraph reported he’d allowed his girlfriend to visit him twice during the lockdown. Ferguson had become known in the UK as “Professor Lockdown” so his willingness to break the rules he had championed was pretty surprising to a lot of people who are basically stuck at home because of his advice.

All of this is relevant in the United States because we’re facing the same dilemma. President Trump has cited the figures (2.2 million deaths) in the Ferguson report as a worst case scenario. But he is now pushing to reopen the country more along the lines of what Sweden is doing, i.e. businesses can open but masks and social distancing remain in place.

So we remain somewhere in between the advice given by separate groups of scientists who very much disagree about what the best course was, is and will be in the future. And the truth is we still don’t know who is right because we don’t know a lot of things including a) if we’ll get a working vaccine this year and b) if there is a second wave that is as bad or worse than the first coming this winter, and c) how badly Sweden’s economy will suffer despite the looser rules. On that last point, the best current guess is that it will be very bad but not quite as bad as other countries:

All of that is contributing to what Sweden’s government estimates will be a 6% contraction in domestic consumption this year. Combined with a forecast 10% drop in exports, Swedish authorities predict, the result will be a 7% decline in overall 2020 economic output. The eurozone economy as a whole is projected to contract by about 8% this year, according to a European Commission estimate.

We’re all told to follow the science but the truth is the science isn’t completely clear yet and by the time it is completely clear, we may be too far along the path we’re on to benefit from it.