Epidemiology gets personal

John Ioannidis

The statistician behind sceptical views of national Covid-19 lockdowns, Stanford’s John Ioannidis, has become a target of abuse by colleagues who believe that his ideas are dangerous and perhaps politically motivated.

Ioannides, who was once called “one of the most influential scientists alive” has published research which says that the mortality rate may be as low as 0.2% or less – a bit higher than seasonal flu.

“The best data that we have now suggests that it’s not one out of 30 or one out of a hundred people who get infected who will die. It’s probably in the range of one in a thousand,” Ioannidis told Fox News host Mark Levin. “We also know that there’s some types of people who are at much higher risk than others. Most of the population has minimal risk, in the range of dying while you’re driving from home to work and back.”

Conservative media have used his research to question the need for government-mandated social distancing and lockdowns. But some scientists have accused him of doing “horrible science”.

“His current study fits most of the high-risk criteria for falsehood that he outlines [in how own research], such as publishing in a really hot scientific field with few corroborating studies, using a small bias sample, [and] reporting provocative findings in a politically charged arena,” epidemiologist Travis Gerke told UnDark. “If you just go through his own work, he seems to be breaking all his own rules.”

However, in an essay in Stat, two scientists who are sceptical of Ioannides’s claims insist that disagreement should not degenerate into name-calling.

Society faces a risk even more toxic and deadly than Covid-19: that the conduct of science becomes indistinguishable from politics. The tensions between the two policy poles of rapidly and systematically reopening society versus maximizing sheltering in place and social isolation must not be reduced to Republican and Democratic talking points, even as many media outlets promote such simplistic narratives.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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