“The most terrible thing in the world is ignorance in action” Goethe.
There is a message doing the rounds on FB pointing out that the Coronavirus is not spread by animals and that pet owners should not be panicked into parting with their dogs and cats. This is sensible advice, but can we trust the scientists not to include animals as a risk? Recent history has shown that governments are too easily advised to resort to mass slaughter of animals in response to a panic over disease. It will only take a couple of scientists backed by the media to create a panic and terrified politicians will respond. Science may be objective, but the management of scientific research has always involved a messy interplay between politics and scientific research.
Millions of lives can be lost when scientists go over the top and politicians apply their errors. Rachael Carson’s flawed research got DDT banned and millions of Africans died of malaria as a result. The alleged links between cancer and DDT were widely cited but not adequately established. This was a case of faulty science backed by objectives for population control. In the 1960s, the World Health Organization authorities believed there was no alternative to the overpopulation problem but to assure than up to 40 percent of the children in poor nations would die of malaria. This was backed by a statement from the Agency for International Development : “Rather dead than alive and riotously reproducing.”
Policies for combating Coronavirus are said to be led by science. But from what we understand this is led by computer models, which is a help in assisting science but not as the main source of scientific predictions. Obviously commonsense advice is important, hand washing, social distancing etc. Better safe than sorry or dead.
Foot and mouth epidemic
Similarities with advice given by scientists in past epidemics and the present pandemic have been noticed. The Telegraph 28th March 2020 published an article about the current government adviser on combating the coronavirus. Professor Neil Ferguson, of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College in London. He produced a paper predicting that Britain was on course to lose 250,000 people during the coronavirus epidemic unless stringent measures were taken. His research is said to have convinced Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and his advisors to introduce the lockdown. Twenty four hours after the lockdown was initiated Ferguson revised his figures down to 25,000 deaths. He’s also the same chap that advised Tony Blair at the time of the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001. It was his plan that led to the culling of healthy livestock even if they were on adjoining farms. The culling led to the slaughter of six million cattle, sheep and pigs and cost the economy £10 billion.
Since then Ferguson’s calculations have been widely criticised and we’ve been told that the modelling was ‘extremely flawed’, based on allegedly faulty assumptions which nevertheless shaped government strategies and impacted the UK economy.
Acting on questionable advice regarding the foot and mouth epidemic the government authorized mass killing of animals over other alternatives which were not adequately considered. Vaccination was rejected on economic and political grounds as a non-vaccination policy fulfills an economic objective, insofar as it provides a means of barring cheap meat imports, thus protecting farmers in the EU from competitors who could supply cheaper meat from much of Africa and South America.Acting on dubious advice the government adopted a slaughter policy which was denounced as incompetent. Burning the animals did not eradicate the virus, and in cases where the fires were partial, it merely helped to spread it. As the blisters on the animal’s feet and mouths warm, they burst and propel the virus in a vortex of hot air. The alternative involved burying the animals which raised pollution risks. Panic measures were ill-thought out and harshly implemented, involving the cancellation of sporting fixtures, and the closure of public footpaths and much of the countryside. These measures had a devastating effect on the tourist and hotel business, yet there was no sound scientific basis for closing footpaths, as there has never been a case of a casual walker spreading the disease.
At the time of the foot and mouth epidemic I was engaged in work in Brasil, and during my time there I visited a couple of ranches where I saw stringent controls over hygiene and vaccination of cattle. Brasil borders with several countries where law is scarcely enforced and without a rigorous prevention policy cattle diseases from infected areas would destroy the farming industry.
Mad Cow Disease
Professor Ferguson also claimed that 150,000 people could die from bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) referred to in the press as ‘Mad Cow Disease’. Thankfully his predictions were wildly off and fewer than 200 lost their lives.
We might recall the BSE Disease panic. The disease spread from the South of England in 1985 to affect the whole country, with numbers rising to 36,000 cases each year. More than 180 thousand cows were infected but four million cattle were slaughtered. BSE carries the risk that humans will be affected, but confusion and uncertainty regarding its origins continued until 2001 and beyond, causing embarrassment to scientists and politicians. In 2019 the BBC predicted a new disastrous outbreak of the disease. It seems that the Coronavirus pandemic pushed that to one side.
I was invited to teach a course on scientific methodology to veterinary scientists advising the government who were beset with confusion regarding the correct scientific approach during the so called ‘mad cow’ panic. I prepared reading material and recommended books. I received a reply from the organizers complaining that the material was too difficult, and a comment was added to the letter saying ‘remember, these are government scientists’.
The lesson for today: be very careful in accepting what politicians claim to be policies based on science. Scientists are not infallible and many scientific institutions rely heavily on Governments for finance and modify their advice which may run counter to scientific evidence.Moreover, organizations like the WHO may appear as medical authorities, but at the top are politicians, like Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO. He is the first person to hold the position who doesn’t have a medical degree He was a politician. Remember, over three million children died from malaria which followed the banning of DDT on what was really a political objective.
Commonsense tells us that regular hand washing, maintaining a social distance and sensible isolation is required in the face of any virus including the Coronavirus. And whilst many of us may rightly doubt the statements from politicians and their advisers, I would nevertheless recommend the adoption of Pascal’s wager. Just act as if the worst might happen, even if our intellect tells us otherwise