Back in April, I talked about some of the researchers who were propping up the conservative claim that COVID-19 was being overdiagnosed, including John Ioannidis, a researcher who I personally had a great deal of respect for. “Had.” Because you see, in March Ioannidis was writing articles suggesting that COVID wasn’t a big deal, but by May he was publishing studies claiming he could prove it wasn’t a big deal. His studies were sloppy and embarrassing, something that researchers pointed out at the time but in those early days of the pandemic, so much got lost in the confusion caused by governments withholding data, conservatives politicizing the issue, and scientists struggling to keep up with a growing world health issue.
But now, eight months later, we have a lot more data and we can see exactly how wrong Ioannidis and his colleagues were, and the harm that they helped cause. In March, Ioannidis made a “mid-range guess” that the COVID-19 case fatality rate is .3% that would result in 10,000 deaths, a number so low that we wouldn’t even notice it as anything other than a particularly bad flu season. In reality, the case fatality rate (which is the number of people who die after they are confirmed to be COVID-19-positive) is currently estimated to be almost 2% in the United States. In reality, we passed 10,000 deaths at the start of April, just two weeks after Ioannidis’s article. In reality, we are at 282,000 dead Americans with no end in sight.
Yet the debate over Ioannidis and his flawed studies continues to rage. I already pointed out one big problem with his primary study. That was the study in which he claimed to have found evidence that the Bay Area was downright lousy with COVID-19, which, if true, would mean that the true infection fatality rate (or IFR, which is the number of people who die from COVID-19 whether they are asymptomatic or not) is insanely low. BuzzFeed’s Stephanie M. Lee reported that that study was funded by the founder of JetBlue, who was vehemently in favor of Trump’s plan to do nothing about the virus and who told the world that he befriended Ioannidis and specifically earmarked a donation for his study. That was a big red flag, but I didn’t mention (because I missed it originally) that Lee also discovered that subjects for that study, which the study authors claimed were chosen randomly, were actually recruited by the wife of one of the authors. She emailed her wealthy friends in the area offering to test them for free for COVID-19 antibodies, saying “If you have antibodies against the virus, you are FREE from the danger of a) getting sick or b) spreading the virus. In China and U.K. they are asking for proof of immunity before returning to work. If you know any small business owners or employees that have been laid off, let them know — they no longer need to quarantine and can return to work without fear.” None of which was true. Nor was it true that the test was “FDA approved,” as she reassured the people she emailed.
Scientists pointed out that that skewed the subjects involved in the study, specifically increasing the chance that people would sign up if they had previously been sick, to learn if what they had was COVID. That would artificially increase the number of COVID-positive subjects, making the final IFR useless.
I’m bringing all this up now not just because time has shown exactly how badly Ioannidis and his study authors fucked up, but also because his friends are continuing to publish hit pieces trying to redeem him and cast a bad light on the scientists who have been critical of him. Most recently, Scientific American made the mistake of publishing a defense of Ioannidis written by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, two researchers whose bylines were originally omitted. That was a pretty bad oversight considering that they were, unbeknownst to SciAm, collaborators of the people they were defending. Conflict of interest aside, the piece was filled with so many inaccuracies (some of which one would be excused for mistaking for “lies”) that SciAm needed to go back and add six endnotes explaining that they were wrong. For instance, when Brownlee and Lenzer claim that it was “misleading” and “wrong” for BuzzFeed to state that there was a financial conflict, which BuzzFeed responded to by pointing out “we know that Neeleman donated $5,000 to the study, he himself acknowledged that the study authors knew about it, and another co-author on the study, biotech investor Andrew Bogan, thanked him for his financial support in one of Neeleman’s many emails to the Santa Clara study authors during the course of the study.”
Like, the article itself is 630 words but the corrections are 445 words. At some point, shouldn’t you just delete the post? This is incredibly embarrassing for Scientific American, a publication that I once had a lot of respect for — oh, kind of like how I used to feel about John Ioannidis. I’m happy they included the corrections but seriously, how did this get published in the first place? Nearly 15 million Americans have been diagnosed with this pandemic. Nearly 300,000 are dead. It’s time to stop pretending that conservatives were ever right about how it’s “just the flu” and move on to figuring out how we convince them to stay inside, wear a mask, and get the vaccine when it comes out.