The shocking story of how a disastrously flawed Coronavirus model changed government policy overnight and shut down the world for months.
One can pinpoint the exact moment when life in the United States changed, possibly forever. It was the night of March 11th, 2020 and the NBA suspended its season. At about the same time, arguably the world’s most famous actor made a shocking announcement.
Within days, states would begin to issue orders restricting the number of people who could gather together. Shortly after that, they began closing schools.
But it wasn’t until March 16th that governments began to shut down their states entirely. Why did they take such a draconian step? Because of the release of a bombshell report in Great Britain.
The Imperial College of London projected that more than 500,000 people in Great Britain would die if no protective measures were put in place. The picture in the United States was even bleaker: 2.2 million people could die if the country didn’t close.
Even with ambitious measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, the Imperial College model predicted that 1.1 million people in the United States and 260,000 people in Great Britain would die.
The governmental response was immediate. Both the United Kingdom and United States ordered people to begin sheltering in place.
"On the guidelines of the task force, the new modeling conducted by Dr. Birx, and our consultation with governors, we’ve made the decision to further toughen the guidelines and blunt the infection now," President Trump announced. "We’d much rather be ahead of the curve than behind it, and that’s what we are. Therefore, my administration is recommending that all Americans, including the young and healthy, work to engage in schooling from home when possible. Avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people. Avoid discretionary travel. And avoid eating and drinking at bars, restaurants, and public food courts."
What, precisely did President Trump mean when he referenced “new modeling” conducted by Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator?
She explained later in that same press conference on March 16th.
"We have been working on models, day and night, around the globe, to really predict, because some countries are in a very early stage, like the United States," she said. "We’ve been working with groups in the United Kingdom.
"So, we had new information coming out from a model, and what had the biggest impact in the model is social distancing, small groups, not going in public in large groups."
That model was from the Imperial College and its chief researcher Neil Ferguson. It is hard to stress enough just how influential it was in both the U.S. and U.K., where it turned lockdown skeptics like Prime Minister Johnson and President Trump into believers overnight.
And almost overnight, states across America began implementing total shutdowns of restaurants, bars, retail stores, and every business they deemed “non-essential.”
Unfortunately, the Imperial College model on which they all relied was staggeringly, disastrously wrong.
Almost immediately after it was released, Ferguson’s model came under fire from Oxford University epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta, whose own modeling suggested that Coronavirus had been spreading in the U.K. far earlier than anyone suspected and that in most cases, it was either asymptomatic or so mild that it was confused with the common cold.
"The Oxford study is based on a what is known as a ‘susceptibility-infected-recovered model’ of Covid-19, built up from case and death reports from the UK and Italy," The Financial Times reported. "The researchers made what they regard as the most plausible assumptions about the behaviour of the virus.
"The modelling brings back into focus ‘herd immunity’, the idea that the virus will stop spreading when enough people have become resistant to it because they have already been infected.
"If the findings are confirmed by testing, then the current restrictions could be removed much sooner than ministers have indicated."
In other words, the Ferguson’s model was dramatically flawed.
"I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model," Gupta said.
Ferguson himself, it seems, agreed with this conclusion, because as soon as Gupta’s research was released, he walked back his doomsday predictions.
“I should admit, we’ve always been sensitive in the analysis in the modeling to a variety of levels or values to those quantities [of people who had the virus but didn’t know it],” Ferguson told members of Parliament. “What we’ve been seeing, though, in Europe in the last week or two is a rate of growth of the epidemic which was faster than we expected from early data in China. And so we are revising our quotes, our central best estimate of the reproduction… something more, a little bit above of the order of three or a little bit above rather than about 2.5.
“The current values are still within the wide range of values which…we should have been looking at previously.”
In other words, he was wrong. Spectacularly wrong. His revised projection indicated that far fewer people than initially predicted would die, and most of those who would were already so sick with underlying health problems that they would have died within a year anyway even if they never contracted Coronavirus.
On March 26th, Dr. Birx relayed this sad reality.
"I’m sure many of you saw the recent report out of the UK about them adjusting completely their needs," she said. "This is really quite important. If you remember, that was the report that said there would be 500,000 deaths in the UK and 2.2 million deaths in the United States. They’ve adjusted that number in the UK to 20,000. So, half a million to 20,000. We’re looking into this in great detail to understand that adjustment."
This was the first inkling Dr. Birx or any of the government’s top disease specialists had that the models on which they had relied were off by orders of magnitude.
"We are about five times the size of Italy," she added. "So if we were Italy and you did all those divisions, Italy should have close to 400,000 deaths. They’re not close to achieving that. So these are the kinds of things we’re trying to understand. Models are models. We’re adapting now to the — there’s enough data now of the real experience with the Coronavirus on the ground to really make these predictions much more sound."
In addition, that model predicted that since Sweden did not follow the lead of the U.S. and U.K. in immediately locking down, it would have 40,000 Coronavirus deaths by May 1st. It actually recorded about 2,800.
Why was Ferguson’s modeling so flawed? He admitted that he based it on computer coding developed in 2007 to model influenza pandemics rather than Coronavirus outbreaks like SARS in 2002 or COVID-19 now.
Instead of immediately releasing that code so that it could be peer-reviewed, though, he kept it hidden for six weeks and even then only released a heavily edited version.
Sadly, this was just the latest in a long line of catastrophic mistakes from Ferguson. As National Review noted:
Ferguson was behind the disputed research that sparked the mass culling of eleven million sheep and cattle during the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Charlotte Reid, a farmer’s neighbor, recalls: “I remember that appalling time. Sheep were left starving in fields near us. Then came the open air slaughter. The poor animals were panic stricken. It was one of the worst things I’ve witnessed. And all based on a model — if’s but’s and maybe’s.”
In 2002, Ferguson predicted that up to 150,000 people could die from exposure to BSE (mad cow disease) in beef. In the U.K., there were only 177 deaths from BSE.
In 2005, Ferguson predicted that up to 150 million people could be killed from bird flu. In the end, only 282 people died worldwide from the disease between 2003 and 2009.
In 2009, a government estimate, based on Ferguson’s advice, said a “reasonable worst-case scenario” was that the swine flu would lead to 65,000 British deaths. In the end, swine flu killed 457 people in the U.K.
So frequently and so epically did Ferguson overestimate death tolls that his colleagues mockingly call him “The Master of Disaster.”
In late March, Dr. Birx recognized what British scientists did years ago: That Neil Ferguson was a hack. America needed its own modeling.
She turned to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which presented a model showing numbers similar to Ferguson’s: If no lockdowns were implemented, 1.5 to 2.2 million Americans would die.
If instead states kept their shelter-in-place orders going, though, only 240,000 people would die.
The Imperial College model was fatally flawed, but this new model was far more accurate. President Trump accepted it and on March 29th announced that “15 Days to Flatten the Curve” would be extended to the end of April.
Almost immediately, though, a problem arose. The IHME model kept changing, and changing dramatically.
The National Review’s Andrew McCarthy charted the swings:
In a space of just six days starting April 2, two revisions (on April 5 and 8) have utterly discredited the model produced by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
I wrote about the IHME’s modeling at National Review on Monday, the day after the first revision — which was dramatic, but pales in comparison to Wednesday’s reassessment. This was not immediately apparent because the latest revision (April 8) did not include a side-by-side comparison, as did the April 5 revision. Perusal of the new data, however, is staggering, as is what it says about government predictions we were hearing just days ago about the likelihood of 100,000 deaths, with as many as 240,000 a real possibility.
As I noted in my last post on this subject, by April 5, the projection of likely deaths had plunged 12 percent in just three days, 93,531 to 81,766. Understand, this projection is drawn from a range; on April 2, IHME was telling us cumulative COVID-19 deaths could reach as high as approximately 178,000. The upper range was also reduced on April 5 to about 136,000.
On April 8, the projected cumulative deaths were slashed to 60,145 (with the upper range again cut, to about 126,000). That is, in less than a week, the model proved to be off by more than 33 percent.
The day after that report was published, on April 9th, FOX News anchor Martha McCallum asked the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, about it.
His answer was revealing:
I am and will always be somewhat reserved and skeptical about models because models are only as good as the assumptions you put into the model. Those assumptions that start off when you don’t have very much data at all or the data you have is uncertain, that you put these assumptions in and you get these wide ranges of calculations of what might happen. 100,240,000 deaths. But then as you start to accumulate data, likely being influenced heavily by the mitigations that you put in, physical separations, when real data comes in, then data always trumps any model. Have to modify the model and the assumptions as you get data. I have no problem with people who are critical of modeling because modeling is inherently an imperfect science. So I don’t really have any quibbling with that. You have to make sure you collect real data, you rely more on the data than the model.
Governments apparently didn’t, as they kept citizens locked down even as the IHME model was revised again and again as it kept swinging and missing in its projections over the next three weeks.
So conspicuous were these constant alterations that Vox.com published a lengthy critique of it on May 2nd entitled “This coronavirus model keeps being wrong. Why are we still listening to it?”
The model first estimated in late March that there’d be fewer than 161,000 deaths total in the US; in early April, it revised its projections to say the total death toll through August was “projected to be 60,415” (though it acknowledged the range could be between 31,221 and 126,703).
One analysis of the IHME model found that its next-day death predictions for each state were outside its 95 percent confidence interval 70 percent of the time — meaning the actual death numbers fell outside the range it projected 70 percent of the time.
This track record has led some experts to criticize the model. “It’s not a model that most of us in the infectious disease epidemiology field think is well suited” to making projections about Covid-19, Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch told reporters.
Three days after that stinging rebuke of the IHME model was published, the author of the Imperial College model proved once and for all what he really thought about the necessity of lockdowns.
Neil Ferguson, who had himself contracted Coronavirus in March, was forced to resign his government post after he was caught breaking quarantine to have trysts with his married mistress.
"I accept I made an error of judgment and took the wrong course of action," Ferguson said in a statement. "I have therefore stepped back from my involvement in the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
"I acted in the belief that I was immune, having tested positive for coronavirus, and completely isolated myself for almost two weeks after developing symptoms," he added. "I deeply regret any undermining of the clear messages around the continued need for social distancing to control this devastating epidemic. The Government guidance is unequivocal, and is there to protect all of us.”
Ferguson was the man most responsible for that government guidance, not just in the U.K., but across the globe. If the man known as “Doctor Lockdown” didn’t himself truly believe lockdowns were needed, then were they?
More importantly, why were the world’s lockdowns all premised on government models from both Ferguson and the University of Washington that have proven to be totally, completely wrong?