Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, “follow the science!” has been repeated like a mantra. Yet we have followed science at a safe distance at best.
Europe’s AstraZeneca vaccine saga is the latest example. Some people suffered blood clots after receiving the vaccine. Many EU countries, including France, Germany and Italy, promptly stopped administering it, demanding an investigation by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). This might seem reasonable, even scientific. Except that the share of vaccine recipients suffering blood clots does not appear to be any higher than their share in the general population. There is no evidence that the vaccine caused the blood clots, and the EMA itself recommended that countries keep using it, saying the benefits far outweighed the risks. But a number of countries stopped administering it.
They were following politics, not science. The EU was late in ordering the vaccines, then accused AstraZeneca of running behind on its deliveries even before EU authorities actually approved the vaccine. German health officials then claimed the vaccine was unsafe for those older than 65; the claim was rejected by the World Health Organization (WHO). Then EU countries suspended it on blood clots concerns, even as the EMA recommended to continue administering it. On Thursday, the EMA concluded its investigation and reiterated that the vaccine is safe. Italy, France, Spain and Portugal said they would resume inoculations (though Germany did not, and France’s health authority now says the vaccine should only be used by those older than 55, further muddying the waters). But the damage has already been done: many EU citizens will no longer trust the AstraZeneca vaccine; some will not trust any vaccine. For countries that have vaccinated very few people because they don’t have enough doses, this is irresponsible.
Europe is not alone in playing politics with Covid-19 vaccines. Last September, then candidate Biden voiced doubts that a vaccine developed during the Trump administration would be safe; and Kamala Harris said she would not take a vaccine “if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it.”
These are just the latest instances. Throughout the pandemic we have blissfully ignored the most obvious evidence that data and science provided:
Covid-19 poses a grave threat to the elderly, much less so to the young. This was clear from the beginning and has been confirmed by the data month after month in every single country. Yet during the first wave of contagion New York State ordered nursing homes to take in covid-positive elderly patients while additional hospital facilities remained empty; in Italy doctors left elderly patients in the corridors to save ICU beds for younger patients. Governments worried about the young and failed to protect the old. A year later, many have rushed to vaccinate a wide range of categories ahead of the elderly: not just health care workers but teachers (even where schools remain closed), politicians and prison inmates.
Covid-19 poses very little threat to children. This was clear from the beginning and studies have confirmed again and again that young children are at very low risk and schools are not a significant vector of contagion. Yet many countries and US states have kept schools closed since March 2020 and are still reluctant to reopen them. This has sabotaged two full academic years, with disastrous consequences for children’s mental health and development. It has caused a learning gap that these children will never be able to bridge, undermining their careers and lifetime earnings. It has exacerbated inequality, as kids from lower-income families have been stranded without the support of a reliable internet connection and the tutoring of highly educated parents.
By contrast, we have placed the greatest emphasis on measures with the flimsiest scientific support.
The lockdowns do not work. If they did, countries and states that imposed the most stringent restrictions for the longest time would have experienced much lower mortality rates that those that didn’t. That is manifestly not the case, as has been amply documented. Italy’s covid deaths per million of population are 30% higher than Sweden; yet Italy pioneered and mastered the art of the lockdown, whereas Sweden adopted lighter and mostly voluntary restrictions. In the US, California shut down immediately and for all practical purposes never reopened; Florida never closed its businesses; yet Florida’s deaths per million are only 5% higher than California’s – and Florida has a much older population (27% of Florida’s population is aged over 60, compared to 21% in California).
The evidence on masks is still mixed. It makes intuitive sense that they should slow the spread, but a surprising number of studies fail to find evidence for it (see for example this one, published by the CDC). That’s quite extraordinary. Given the uncompromising widespread mask mandates, you would expect scientific studies to provide overwhelming evidence that masks slow the spread of contagion – that is just not the case. The reasons could be many: cloth masks don’t work as well as surgical ones; viruses escape from the edge of masks; some people get less careful about social distance when they are wearing a mask. The WHO in its official guidance notes that “A mask alone, even when it is used correctly, is insufficient to provide adequate protection or source control.”
By the way, did you know that the WHO recommends not to wear a mask while exercising? Yet I’ve often seen people running in an empty Golden Gate Park early in the morning, fully masked up (and in one memorable occasion, after Doctor Fauci warned that the eyes were also vulnerable, with swimming goggles). The same WHO webpage also proves how hard it is to fight on the side of science: “Fact: Eating garlic does not prevent Covid-19”.
What’s most worrying here is the refusal to have an open discussion on the science. It makes sense that face coverings will stop at least some of the virus; and if we locked every individual in total isolation there would be no human-to-human transmission. But sometimes common sense is wrong, and extreme measures are often unworkable. There is no convincing scientific evidence that the way we use masks and impose lockdowns works. At the very least we should try to understand what we are doing wrong.
Instead we double down on the same strategies; in the case of masks literally so, since Doctor Fauci now recommends wearing two masks rather than one. Instead of encouraging a debate, studies showing that masks or lockdowns don’t work get censored. Voicing doubts on their efficacy it treated like a crime against humanity.
It was all too easy to blame it all on Trump. Now Trump has gone, and nothing has changed. President Biden said that reopening schools would be a priority for his first 100 days, then backtracked under pressure from teachers’ unions. “Follow the science” remains a useful tactic to place your favorite shibboleth outside the scope of scientific debate.
This has consequences. Masks probably help, and they are at worst an inconvenience. But the lockdowns have enormous costs: lost jobs and incomes, disrupted learning, increased mental illness and suicides. Moreover, as policymakers, media and experts shut down debate, promote as truths the ideas and data they like and ignore the rest, they are undermining people’s confidence in science itself.
Following the science would be a great idea. But science has taken a long lead on us; we’d better hurry or we’ll never catch up.
*the original version of this article is published here