April 7, 2020 10.32 am This story is over 17 months old

Barry Turner: Why we don’t know if the lockdown bought us enough time

COVID-19: Predictions v. Knowledge

The only fact that is certain about coronavirus and the disease it causes is that we still know very little about it. We are learning all the time, but as the old saying goes, “if time was money, we would all be poor”.

We are saturated in an ocean of news, expert opinion, political sniping and an ever-increasing fear of what the next months will bring. Will millions die? When will the lockdown end? Will our society be changed for the better or worse?

Predictions are like propaganda, defined as it is as a grain of truth wrapped in a blanket of hyperbole. Predictions tell us what might happen, not what will, yet with the enthusiasm of some scientists and the disaster obsession of our media, they sometimes appear to be fact rather than speculation. We should not lose sight of the inescapable reality that even educated, even expert speculation, is still speculation.

Responsible scientists will always tell us that their work is based on data and verifiability, they will tell us that science is a search for the truth, not the possession of it. The search for the truth about coronavirus is at its beginning and nowhere near its conclusion. The sad but inescapable fact is that we know so very little about this virus or the trajectory it is taking.

Our politicians, now flanked by physicians and scientists, cannot tell us when the virus will cease to be a major threat to humanity because neither they nor their distinguished expert advisors know. There is no doubt that the lockdown was the correct decision and that it has bought us time to make provisions for treating the sick. There is no doubt that there will be many more survivors of this disease as a result of it. But as to the end, we are totally in the dark.

All scientists know that their work is often obstructed by what is known in the trade as a confounder. Sometimes this confounding variable prevents any meaningful knowledge arising out of years of work. Science is work in progress and very slow work indeed. This crisis will take a very long time to find answers to.

What are the confounders here and now? Just how close are we to a solution? The reality is not very. There is so much we do not know about this virus and the disease it causes that we have a long way to go yet. We do not know the actual fatality rate of this disease. The figures coming in from all over the world are widely varying and the reasons for that are not, as our press and some politicians tell us, simple. Epidemiology is an imprecise science, a combination of the hard sciences of chemistry, physics and biology and the softer sciences of sociology and anthropology.

We do not know the proportion of the population who have caught the disease or will catch it. Correctly, a great emphasis is being placed on testing, but simple arithmetic tells us that even at the incredible rate that the Germans are testing the population it would take 4.54 years to do all of them. As it stands, the only people being tested are healthcare workers and those with symptoms. Once again, our responsible scientists will tell us that a targeted rather than a random sample cannot indicate either the infection rate within a population or its likely fatality index.

We do not know if infection and recovery convey an immunity, it is most likely that it will, but not certain. We do not know if this disease will peak and fade away or come back, either in a more deadly or less deadly form. We do know that this virus is now with us for a long time, wherever it may have come from, it is not going to go away.

Consequently, we do not know if we have bought enough time with our lockdown or not. Can we develop a vaccine or a treatment with the next few months? Not likely, miracle cures are the stuff of science fiction, not fact. We have some drugs which are promising, but as yet untested. Several of the drugs so far indicated have been tested in vitro only, and a drug that works in a ‘test tube’ often is useless in a complex organism such as a human body.

The media need to be more circumspect when talking of such things. False hopes are not only unethical, they are dangerous. Policy decided on such predictions can have disastrous as well as positive results. In the world of science getting the detail wrong even in tiny amounts can make the difference between a major breakthrough or a catastrophic failure. While predictions are an integral part of all science, there is danger in thinking of them as the conclusive product of science. We must look upon them with the appropriate scientific caution.

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Barry Turner is Senior Lecturer in Media Law and Public Administration at the University of Lincoln.