๐Ÿ”’ SA’s Nobel prizewinning scientist Prof Michael Levitt: Lockdowns are “a huge mistake”

Professor Michael Levitt, a product of Pretoria Boys High whose family left for England when he was 15 years old is a recipient of science’s greatest honour, the Nobel Prize, in his case for chemistry. As you’ll hear in the highlights of this interview with Freddie Sayers of Unherd.com, the 72-year-old professor of computer science and structural biology at California’s top university, Stanford, still has his South African accent the globally respected scientist who’s been tracking Covid-19 data since January has a critical message for the land of his birth. The lockdown is a huge mistake he says. And those countries which have been applying them will be harshly judged by future generations. – Alec Hogg

The big test is going to be in Sweden. Sweden is practising a level of social distancing that is keeping children in schools and keeping people at work. They are obviously having more deaths in countries like Israel or Austria that are practising very strict social distancing, but I think it is not a crazy policy. The reason I felt that social distancing was unimportant, is that I had two examples in China to start with and then we had the additional examples. The first one was Korea, Iran and Italy. Beginning of all the epidemics showed us slowing down and it was very hard for me to believe that those three countries could act as social distancing as well as China. China was amazing, especially outside Hubei, in that they had no additional outbreaks. People who left Hubei were very carefully tracked, had to wear face masks all the time, had to take their temperatures all the time and there were no further outbreaks. This did not happen either in South Korea, Italy or in Iran. Two months later, something else suggested that social distancing might not be important and that is that the total number of deaths we’re seeing in New York City in parts of England in parts of France in northern Italy, all seem to stop at about the same fraction of the population. Are they all practising equally good social distancing? I don’t think so. The problem is outbreaks occurring in different regions. The socialย distance that stops people moving from London to Manchester, is probably a really good idea. My feeling is that in London and in New York City all the people who got infected were infected before anybody noticed. There’s no way that the infection grew so quickly in New York City without the infection spreading very quickly. One of the key things is to stop people who know that they’re sick from infecting others. China has three very important advantages that are not high tech that doesn’t involve security tracking of telephones. What they involve is number one, The tradition in China for years of wearing a face mask when you’re sick. As soon as the Coronavirus started everybody wore a face mask. It doesn’t have to be a hygienic face mask, it just has to be face covering that stops you spraying microdroplets of saliva on somebody you talk to. The second thing in China is that because of the SARS epidemic, they were so scared of it in most airports and stations where you pay tolls etc. there are infrared thermometers that measure your temperature. Having your temperature measured at every single store entrance either with a hand-held thermometer or with something mounted in a wall is completely standard in China. The third thing is that almost all payments in China do not use a credit card. In some senses, it is easier there to practice social distancing, in addition, they know where people are.

What’s your view of the lockdown policy that so many European countries and states in America have introduced?ย 

I think it is a huge mistake, we need smart lockdown. If we were to do this again we would probably insist on face masks, hand sanitisers and some kind of payment that did not involve touching right from the very beginning. This would slow down new outbreaks. For example, they found that children even if they’re infected never infect adults. So why do we not have children at school, why do we not have people working? England, France, Italy, Sweden, Belgium and Holland are all reaching levels of saturation that are going to be very close to herd immunity. The policy of herd immunity is the right policy, 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 practice too much lockdown and got enough people sick to get some sort of herd immunity. The standout losers are countries like Austria, Australia, Israel that actually had very strict lockdowns 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. I think in many ways the European countries are fine, they didn’t need to have the lockdown but they will have all reached a high enough level of infection not to have to worry about further future attacks of coronavirus. The United States seems to be heading that way, certainly that way New York City but they still have a long way to go.

What you’re saying is that you believe success as we are currently measuring it, which is as few cases as possible and a smaller spread of the virus as possible, is actually a failure?

If you really control your epidemic, for example, California has now had a lockdown for 6 weeks and wants another 4 weeks, and they have so far less than 100 deaths. That means they don’t have more than, let’s say 100,000 infected people, that is not enough to give them a significant herd immunity. They didn’t need to do that lockdown. The lockdown is particularly harmful in countries that don’t have a good social infrastructure. Countries like the United States and Israel, many people have been really hurt, especially young people. Everybody panicked. They were fed incorrect numbers by epidemiologists and this led to a situation. There’s 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. Right now we know that the number of excess deaths in Europe is around 130,000 until yesterday, this is for all of Europe, this is for a population of around 330 million people. So an excess of 100,000 for this whole year, it’s actually not that much. In some of the worst through epidemics we get to those kinds of numbers, sometimes a little more of less. Now, I’m not saying the flu is like coronavirus. I’m just simply saying that the burden of death of flu is like coronavirus, especially when we correct for the fact that people who die from coronavirus are older on average than people who die from flu. Flu kills young people it kills 2 or 3 times more people under 65 than this coronavirus. If we put those facts into the situation we find that the burden of death from coronavirus I’m fairly sure will in Europe, where we have good numbers, will be less than that of a very bad flu. Another factor which has not been considered is all cancer patients who aren’t being treated or the heart cardiology patients who aren’t being treated. I’ve heard estimates of tens of thousands of people who are basically going to be dying because of lack of that treatment. Generally, again, the age group who die of cancer are younger than the age group who would die of coronavirus. There is one very easy way to summarise coronavirus, I put an article in the medium in response to an article by the famous British statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter in Cambridge, he had said that the numbers coming from Ferguson suggested that we had to lose about 1 year of people. I immediately wrote an article in the same medium in reply saying that in fact, the answer was actually 1 month, not one year. My feeling is, and it’s being supported by the numbers that the amount of excess death you need to reach saturation whereby the virus by itself stops is on the order of 4 weeks of excess. To give you some idea in the European area where there is good monitoring by a Web site called EuroMOMO, run out of Denmark it covers about 300 million people, every week in Europe and that area is around 50,000 natural deaths. So four weeks would be about 200,000 extra deaths in that year. It looks like coronavirus in Europe, where there is no doubt that it’s the most severely hit area in all the world, and will probably reach around 200,000 or 4 weeks worth.

So what happens, if what you’re saying is there seems to be a statistical observation which is around four weeks of excess death and then the pandemic seems to begin to flat now, What does that mean policy-wise for these European countries?

If we could protect the old people perfectly, then the death threats could be very low. For example, in Europe I said there were about 440,000 excess deaths in the last 9 weeks, the number of those excess deaths who are younger than 65 is about 10%. Basically, 13,000 of the 130,000 deaths are actually under 65 years old. If we had simply been able to protect our elderly people then the death rate would have been much less. Remember the key thing is to have as much infection for as little possible death and also do whatever you can to keep the hospitals full but not overflowing. It’s a difficult calculation. It’s one which a country like Sweden can do where essentially there are no political concerns. The trouble is that in Israel that I know well and in the United States everything is political and therefore nobody could say something like this, They would say, you’re not valuing death. The thing that should have been done is for the media to stress to people that every day somebody dies and these people are essentially in the same age band who died from Corona and had other diseases. I’ve become a huge fan of Twitter, I’ve never used Twitter before and for me, Twitter is the best discussion forum I have seen since I was a student at the Cambridge laboratory molecular biology which is at 26 Nobel Prize-winning lab, the best lab in the world. The Twitter discussion is phenomenal and I’m getting documents from Italy showing that many of the Covid deaths were either dead before they were tested or had up to three other conditions. There is nothing wrong with this, people die for all sorts of reasons but the news should be stressing this and maybe they should be counting it as 0.1 Covid deaths. Countries seem to be racing to have as many Covid deaths as they could and this is a huge mistake. In the flu season, no one cares about these people. The total number of deaths in Europe will be very similar to a severe flu season. This is serious. Flu is a serious disease, maybe we should just shut down the economy during the flu season. People should have been made to understand that. Unfortunately, in Britain they started out wanting to go for herd immunity without too much lockdown, then there was a scary paper which is likely to be retracted which influenced Italy as well.

Could we spend a moment on that paper Professor, I know you had some specific queries about Neil Ferguson’s paper. We had him on the show last week. What did you think he got wrong in those models and predictions?

His work was on modelling. I was following China very carefully and around the 10th of February he had his paper that I saw and in that he was getting a case fatality ratio of around 15% whereas all my observations were saying that it was around 3% or 4%. I was suspicious. I looked at the paper very carefully and in a footnote, to a table, it said assuming exponential growth for 6 days at 15% a day. I had looked at China and never ever seen exponential growth that wasn’t decaying rapidly. My numbers where 10% of the numbers that Ferguson had obtained. I pointed this out in reply in the medium which is out there, it’s clear nobody has ever seen it but it’s there and I didn’t hide it, it just didn’t get any light, it said that it was much more like 1 month than 1 year. I then had an exchange both with Spiegelhalter and Ferguson where I tried to show my case basically saying that when I was doing was just simple proportionality using exactly the same profile of different ages have different death rates. So there’s a profile thing that people over 80 have a certain fraction of the death people between 70 and 80 have a different fraction, just using that data from almost anywhere it could be South Korea it could be anywhere and just simply saying we want the number of deaths that to be the same number that we found which was 7 or 8. If you do that and then apply that proportionality to Britain and the USA you find that for Britain the half a million drops to about 50,000 in the United States 2 million drops to 200,000 essentially a year dropping to a month. The World Health Organisation and I think epidemiologists, in general,ย can only go wrong if they give a number that is smaller. If I said it’s going to be 1 billion deaths from coronavirus, and then say – Oh sorry you guys have done what I’ve said there’s only going to be 100,000 or 10,000,ย  that is considered good policy. They overestimated bird flu by a factor of 100 or 10 thousand, there was a paper in The Guardian who wrote about this. Ebola was overestimated by a factor of 100,00 I think. They say their role is scaring the people into doing something, I can understand that and there’s something to be said for it. If you could practice lockdown with zero economic costs and zero social costs let’s do it, but the problem is that those costs are huge. We’re going to have fatalities from hospitals being closed down. We’re going to have additional children in trauma. We’re going to have businesses damaged maybe less so in the UK because of the compensation policy but certainly massive economic damage in the USA and in Israel and in other countries. So you need to balance both of these things. I don’t think it is responsible. In my work, if I say no it’s too small and I’m wrong or it is too big and I’m wrong both of those errors are the same. If I’m 10% too high or 10% too low that is OK. It seems that being a factor of a thousand too high is perfectly OK in epidemiology, but being a factor of 3 too low is too low. So my prediction is the following, Britain if they had done nothing would have reported the deaths. Remember there’s a difference in reported death, my numbers are all reported, we’d have 4 weeks of additional reported deaths. When the numbers actually came in from what were the real excess deaths my guess is they would be less than that. So we would not have been double what it was in the month but maybe 1 1/3 or so on. That is my feeling. We’re seeing this in Europe, we will know the answer in 3 or 4 weeks time. We will know for all of Europe exactly what the excess death of coronavirus was. Right now it’s 137,000.

What’s your prognosis? What happens next?

There will be a reckoning. Maybe countries will start to see that they need governments that actually think and do things. I often go back and think about what Socrates said 2,400, use your common sense instead of listening to the rhetoric of leaders. We become very influenced by that. I think also what should happen and this is going to sound very strange to you, this is another failure on the part of the baby boomers. I’m a real baby boomer. I was born in 1947. I’m almost 73 years old, I think we’ve really screwed up. We caused pollution, weโ€™ve allowed the world’s population to increase threefold in my lifetime even more. We 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. If I was a young person now I would say, Now you guys are going to pay for this. We have a family WhatsApp and very early on I said this is a virus designed to get rid of the baby boomers. I don’t know, my wife thinks this is going to be a scene change and we’re going to have people in the streets saying you guys have really screwed up, it’s time to go.