Here’s a remarkable story that no-one in the media or social media has picked up on (although you can bet that everyone in the field knows).
So we have two epidemiological teams, one at Imperial, and one at Oxford, with differing ideas about Covid-19.
The Imperial team, led by Prof. Neil Ferguson, is the team whose study has led to the UK shutdown (Ferguson is a current member of SAGE, the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). They’re the current big guns in this world, and have been for years, ever since the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic when they were led by Professor Roy Anderson, and Ferguson was his protege.
Then there’s the Oxford team, led by Sunetra Gupta. They recently brought out a study [HD: text now below] trashing the Imperial’s study, and claiming that half the country may already have had the virus.
“I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” said Prof Gupta.
There was an immediate attempt to trash the Oxford study in the media (clearly orchestrated by Imperial), for example, here.
Now, do you accept the traditional image of scientists as sober, serious, disinterested seekers of truth? Or do you have more of a Biscuit Factory sort of view of them, where quite a lot of them are very flawed human beings, egotistical shits bent on climbing the greasy pole and treading on people to get to the top? Bullshitters and networkers and operators? Actually, I think the former types do exist, there are good, serious scientists out there (including some of my personal friends, and quite a few readers of this blog), but there are an awful lot of the latter types, especially at the top, and it’s rare to hear of a science department that isn’t full of bitter hatreds and jealousies and vendettas, where every Professor turns into an arsehole no matter how nice they seemed when they were a graduate student.
You may think I’m exaggerating, so let’s take a bit of a closer look at the Imperial-Oxford situation. I’m only going to pick out a few details now, because the full story is very large and I don’t know it all, plus a lot of it is very murky and undocumented.
The Imperial team was originally led by Professor Roy Anderson, leading luminary in the 2001 foot-and-mouth disaster, which is a whole other story that I’m just starting to put together now with the help of a brilliant colleague (and any help on that in the form of recollections and inside knowledge or links would be appreciated). It was Anderson who established Imperial, allegedly in an underhand manner, as the government’s go-to team on communicable disease crises. This was a world rife with intense rivalries.
Anderson had recently come to Imperial from Oxford. Why did he leave Oxford? Turns out it was, allegedly, mainly because of two things. One, he had allegedly not declared to the Wellcome Trust the fact that he was receiving income from a scientific firm, even though he was a Trustee of the Wellcome trust, and a director of a Wellcome Trust Centre.
Secondly, he had allegedly publicly claimed that a woman in the Zoology department was only appointed to a Readership (ie. above Senior Lecturer but below Professor), after her five-year Fellowship ended, because she had slept with the head of department, who was on the appointing committee. There were also allegations that he had been a bit of a bully, but his allegation against this lecturer was the main problem, and it got him suspended for two months. In the end he decided to leave for Imperial, which offered him a very good position. He took many of his team with him, including Neil Ferguson.
I should stress that I have no idea whether any of these allegations, on either side, are true, although I note that the woman won her legal case against Anderson. Yes, it actually went to court, and it was a big deal at Oxford, it wasn’t just a little inter-departmental spat. What I am pointing out is the soap-opera nature of the whole thing. This sort of thing is not at all rare in University science departments (and other departments too), and sometimes it’s worse in the more high-powered ones.
The crowning glory in this story, though, is this. Who was the woman who Anderson allegedly accused of sleeping her way into an Oxford Readership? Her name was … Sunetra Gupta. Who is now the head of the Oxford team engaged in the bitter struggle against the Imperial team that Anderson set up, and which is still run by his protege, Neil Ferguson. You couldn’t make it up. At least, even I wouldn’t have made that up for my novel, it’s just too perfect to sound like real life. But it is real life. Real University life, at least.
The question you should now ask is, if I no longer think that these scientists are all unimpeachable examplars of rectitude, shouldn’t I perhaps be at least a little bit more sceptical of their work? If this is an ego-driven world of power politics, with a lot of glory and funding at stake, and feuds galore (and there are many more stories, especially about Anderson and some of his mates, although I stress that everything in these stories are allegations only), perhaps the shining light of truth isn’t always the end result of the research? So perhaps we should reach for a hefty dose of salt whenever some glamorous set of results is revealed? At least, we should be asking questions like, ‘What reason do we have to think this is true’, other than the appeal to authority? Because the appeal to authority isn’t going to cut it.
Update: If you can’t see the FT article, here’s the text:
Coronavirus may have infected half of UK population — Oxford study
New epidemiological model shows urgent need for large-scale testing
Clive Cookson, Science Editor
March 24 2020
The new coronavirus may already have infected far more people in the UK than scientists had previously estimated — perhaps as much as half the population — according to modelling by researchers at the University of Oxford.
If the results are confirmed, they imply that fewer than one in a thousand of those infected with Covid-19 become ill enough to need hospital treatment, said Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology, who led the study. The vast majority develop very mild symptoms or none at all.
However, the modelling by Oxford’s Evolutionary Ecology of Infectious Disease group has been challenged by other scientists. They have pointed out that the study presents possible scenarios — based on assumptions about the nature of the virus, its virulence and its arrival from China — that contradict those supported by most epidemiologists.
The Oxford research suggests that Covid-19 reached the UK by mid-January at the latest and perhaps as early as December. It spread invisibly for a month or more before the first transmissions within the UK were officially recorded at the end of February and the epidemic started to grow exponentially.
“We need immediately to begin large-scale serological surveys — antibody testing — to assess what stage of the epidemic we are in now,” Prof Gupta said.
The research presents a very different view of the epidemic to the modelling at Imperial College London, which has strongly influenced government policy. “I am surprised that there has been such unqualified acceptance of the Imperial model,” said Prof Gupta.
However, she was reluctant to criticise the government for shutting down the country to suppress viral spread, because the accuracy of the Oxford model has not yet been confirmed and, even if it is correct, social distancing will reduce the number of people becoming seriously ill and relieve severe pressure on the NHS during the peak of the epidemic.
The Oxford study is based on 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 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. The government abandoned its unofficial herd immunity strategy — allowing controlled spread of infection — after its scientific advisers said this would swamp the National Health Service with critically ill patients.
But the Oxford results would mean the country had already acquired substantial herd immunity through the unrecognised spread of Covid-19 over more than two months. If the findings are confirmed by testing, then the current restrictions could be removed much sooner than ministers have indicated.
Although some experts have shed doubt on the strength and length of the human immune response to the virus, Prof Gupta said the emerging evidence made her confident that humanity would build up herd immunity against Covid-19.
To provide the necessary evidence, the Oxford group is working with colleagues at the Universities of Cambridge and Kent to start antibody testing on the general population as soon as possible, using specialised “neutralisation assays which provide reliable readout of protective immunity,” Prof Gupta said. They hope to start testing later this week and obtain preliminary results within a few days.
This article has been amended since original publication to clarify the fact that the modelling is controversial and its assumptions have been contested by other scientists.