by Freddie Sayers
Saturday, 2
May 2020
Video
12:41

Nobel prize-winning scientist: the Covid-19 epidemic was never exponential

Professor Michael Levitt has been following the numbers
by Freddie Sayers

As he is careful to point out, Professor Michael Levitt is not an epidemiologist. He’s Professor of Structural Biology at the Stanford School of Medicine, and winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for “the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.” He’s a numbers guy — as he told us in our interview, his wife says he loves numbers more than her — but then, much of modern science is really about statistics (as his detractors never tire of pointing out, Professor Neil Ferguson is a theoretical physicist by training).

With a purely statistical perspective, he has been playing close attention to the Covid-19 pandemic since January, when most of us were not even aware of it. He first spoke out in early February, when through analysing the numbers of cases and deaths in Hubei province he predicted with remarkable accuracy that the epidemic in that province would top out at around 3,250 deaths.

His observation is a simple one: that in outbreak after outbreak of this disease, a similar mathematical pattern is observable regardless of government interventions. After around a two week exponential growth of cases (and, subsequently, deaths) some kind of break kicks in, and growth starts slowing down. The curve quickly becomes “sub-exponential”.

This may seem like a technical distinction, but its implications are profound. The ‘unmitigated’ scenarios modelled by (among others) Imperial College, and which tilted governments across the world into drastic action, relied on a presumption of continued exponential growth — that with a consistent R number of significantly above 1 and a consistent death rate, very quickly the majority of the population would be infected and huge numbers of deaths would be recorded. But Professor Levitt’s point is that that hasn’t actually happened anywhere, even in countries that have been relatively lax in their responses.

He takes specific issue with the Neil Ferguson paper. “In a footnote to a table it said, assuming exponential growth of 15% for six days. Now I had looked at China and had never seen exponential growth that wasn’t decaying rapidly.”

The explanation for this flattening that we are used to is that social distancing and lockdowns have slowed the curve, but he is unconvinced. As he put it to me, in the subsequent examples to China of South Korea, Iran and Italy, “the beginning of the epidemics showed a slowing down and it was very hard for me to believe that those three countries could practise social distancing as well as China.” He believes that both some degree of prior immunity and large numbers of asymptomatic cases are important factors.

He also observes that the total number of deaths we are seeing, in places as diverse as New York City, parts of England, parts of France and Northern Italy, all seem to level out at a very similar fraction of the total population. “Are they all practising equally good social distancing? I don’t think so.” He disagrees with Sir David Spiegelhalter’s calculations that the totem is around one additional year of excess deaths, while (by adjusting to match the effects seen on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship) he calculates that it is more like one month of excess death that is need before the virus peters out.

More generally, he complains that epidemiologists only seem to be called wrong if they underestimate deaths, and so there is an intrinsic bias towards caution. “They see their role as scaring people into doing something, and I understand that… but in my work, if I say a number is too small and I’m wrong, or too big and I’m wrong, both of those errors are the same.”

He believes the much-discussed R0 is a faulty number, as it is meaningless without the time infectious alongside.

He describes indiscriminate lockdown measures as “a huge mistake,” and advocates a “smart lockdown” policy, focused on more effective measures, focused on protecting elderly people.

I think the policy of herd immunity is the right policy. I think Britain was on exactly the right track before they were fed wrong numbers. And they made a huge mistake. I see the standout winners as Germany and Sweden. They didn’t practise too much lockdown and they got enough people sick to get some herd immunity. I see the standout losers as countries like Austria, Australia and Israel that had very strict lockdown but didn’t have many cases. They have damaged their economies, caused massive social damage, damaged the educational year of their children, but not obtained any herd immunity.

“There is no doubt in my mind, that when we come to look back on this, the damage done by lockdown will exceed any saving of lives by a huge factor.

- Professor Michael Levitt

He is philosophical about the future and sees this as a generational mistake:

I think this is another foul-up on the part of the baby boomers. I am a real baby boomer — I was born in 1947, I am almost 73 years old — but I think we’ve really screwed up. We’ve caused pollution, we’ve allowed the world’s population to increase threefold in my lifetime, we’ve caused the problems of global warming and now we’ve left your generation with a real mess in order to save a relatively small number of very old people.
- Professor Michael Levitt

It’s a view that doesn’t fit the narrative, but which we felt deserved to be heard.

Please forgive quality issues on the video: Prof Levitt was joining us down the line from Tel Aviv and we had intermittent bandwidth issues which have done our best to edit out.

Join the discussion


  • So we have yet another scientist – and I mean a really, really impressive one this time, an actual Nobel Prize winner – raising doubts about the lockdown on purely scientific grounds.

    But the part that caught my attention most was the way that just because he appeared on Fox News, CNN wouldn’t have him.

    This is deliberate suppression of alternative opinions, so this is clear proof that Covid-19 has been politicised, and I’ve held this opinion for a long time.

    What’s going on now I think has to be seen clearly in the perspective of what happened previously – i.e. since the Brexit vote in June 2016 and the election of President Trump in Jan 2017, the “liberal left” in politics and the media both in the UK and the US has been in a “meltdown” and non-stop proliferation of anti-Trump/Johnson/populism propaganda.

    The fact those two events happened so close together were a “double-whammy” to the “liberal left” (or Blairite left in the UK) who had the twin goals of getting a political correctness supporting first woman President in the White House, and a similar male supporter of multiculturalism in the UK in the form of Jeremy Corbyn (though they considered Corbyn as far from ideal with accusations of anti-Semitism against him, probably simply due to his support of the Palestinians and so on).

    So instead they got these “privileged white male” populists in Downing Street and the White House, who both were some degree of nationalism supporters, and so have been trying to get rid of both ever since, but with total failure in both cases until now.

    I believe the British and American liberal/PC media jumped on covid-19 as an opportunity to get rid of both Johnson and Trump by forcing them both to carry out a lockdown, knowing the likely devastating economic and social consequences, because they believed that is the only way they could get rid of them – by effectively turning their own supporters against them.

    There doesn’t seem to be any other plausible explanation for the utterly one-sided and relentless propaganda emanating especially from the British anti-Brexit obsessed Guardian newspaper, and more or less echoed by the BBC.

    These two extremely powerful organs of the media convinced the public that covid-19 was of Biblical proportions, and a nervous and inexperienced Boris Johnson simply caved in to the pressure, as did eventually President Trump in America.

    Now both are faced with the terrible problem of how to end the lockdown faced with a still terrified population that is resisting ending it (according to the polls anyway, which must be at least approximately true I’d guess), while the economic damage builds massively by the day.

    Peter Hitchens for example, nearly the only prominent British journalist who is resisting the mainstream narrative, says he has not been able to get anywhere near the BBC with his views, despite being a very regular guest in times before the lockdown.

    It appears Professor Levitt above is getting the same door slammed in his face from the “liberal/PC” part of the media.

    What sort of news media is it that won’t report dissenting views even from a recent Noble Prize winner in Biology?

    A politically motivated one, that’s the answer to that.

    And what is its motivation?

    In America to get rid of President Trump and replace him with Hilary Clinton or similar.

    In the UK to get rid of Boris Johnson, stop Brexit, and replace him with somebody pro-EU, like Keir Starmer.

    Who is so pro-EU he’d probably like to replace the Union Jack with the EU flag and ban the whole idea of a “traditional English breakfast” (a racist menu surely?) and allow only a “continental one”; just as market traders were long ago banned from selling things by the pound, and instead forced to do so by the kilogram, even though people born before the decimalisation era – which is millions – still aren’t comfortable with or properly understand metric measures.

    In fact, speaking as an older generation person, I almost feel like this lockdown is a form of collective punishment upon the majority older generation Leave voters.

    Because they are (so far) the ones who are being hardest hit and most frightened by the lockdown – having their social and family lives destroyed, and forced into isolation and a very unequal contest to get to the supermarket shelves, when many are either not motorists out of poverty, or unable to drive any more on account of age.

    This feels like to me, and many other older people I know, a war on the older generation, and there has been a lot of that attitude since the Brexit vote – a resentment aka hate of “the Baby Boomers” which Professor Levitt here has picked up on and feels the need apparently to apologise for it.

    I don’t.

    I think the young have shown extreme ingratitude to the old who sacrificed for and raised them, for quite some time, and the appalling discriminatory attitude to the older people who saw the Brexit vote as “getting their country back”, but got labelled racists or whatever merely for trying to hang onto what they consider their birthright.

    Yes, of course the older generation always makes mistakes, but so will the younger one in its turn.

    As every generation always believes it knows better than the older one, but generally within a couple of decades or so becomes almost the same as them, because human nature simply does not change very quickly.

    Rather, it is my view, and one held by many philosophers historically, that the mark of a nation, the degree of its civilisation, is demonstrated best by how it treats its old people.

    Does it care for them and respect them?

    Not only does this one apparently not respect them, it appears quite happy to see them punished and locked up, and of course, the increasing trend to shove parents into a care home at the first opportunity (and often take over their home too) is a part of that disrespect.

    But this lockdown – including the clear disregard of those in care homes – is starting to look more and more like a forcible euthanasia program upon the old, who are more or less being told – don’t come out of your home while there is any risk, which quite frankly means until you are dead.

    Boris Johnson needs to wake up to the trap he is in, as does President Trump.

    As the professor here explains clearly – nobody is or has been under anything more of a threat personally than a bad year of seasonal flu.

    But the threat to the economy and social fabric is now so great that everybody is going to suffer in awful ways if this isn’t ended as soon as possible.

    And the real villains, who I believe are the “liberal media and politicians”, both here and in the US, need to learn the lesson that we are not going to elect them even if we end up with a shattered economy.

    Because we will still consider Johnson and Trump the most likely to fix things, in the absence of a far saner and more convincing program from a genuine socialist party, and not the one that merely pretends to be one, like the current post-Corbyn Labour party and the hopeless and pointless Joe Biden in the US.

  • Fascinating stuff; an interesting and much needed alternative perspective. I’m grateful to this resource for at least bringing something different, but still well thought out, to the discussion. I wonder if the Professor’s ideas will gain any traction elsewhere -if not, then it is indeed symptomatic of the sadly closed narratives of MSM.

  • This interview is just weird.

    Levitt says the rate of growth is determined by R0 and ‘the time infectious’. It’s true the rate of growth doesn’t just depend on R0: it also depends on the generation time of the disease. The ‘time infectious’ is built into R0 (you can get the same R0 from a disease which is hard to catch but people are infectious for a long time, or easy to catch but not infectious for long).

    He is not saying anything new at all here. But believing social distancing is not the reason for the spread to be slowing requires you to believe two impossible (or at least unlikely) things before breakfast.

    Firstly, notice he is not just saying that the spread would have slowed regardless of social distancing, he is saying that social distancing *makes no difference*. So you have to believe that reducing the frequency of contacts by 70-90% *makes no significant difference* to how likely you are to catch the virus. In which case, it cannot be being transmitted by human contact. So how is it being transmitted?

    Secondly, the only plausible reason the spread could slow is because large numbers have already been infected (or are immune). Again, there is no evidence that this is the case, and substantial evidence that it is not.

    True that Ferguson was originally a physicist – but that was 30 years ago. He has been an epidemiologist approximately 5 times longer than he was a physicist, and several hundred times longer than Levitt. I’m afraid this interview is just an example of a smart person overreaching outside his own field – some can do it, others can’t.

    You really need someone with more technical knowledge to conduct, or at least help with, these interviews.

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