One of the more bizarre things that have happened related to the COVID-19 pandemic is the way that antivaccine activists have formed an unholy alliance with COVID-19 conspiracy theorists. On the other hand, it might seem bizarre to those not familiar with antivaccine pseudoscience, but it actually makes perfect sense to those of us who have been following the antivaccine movement for a long time, for the simple reason that all antivaccine pseudoscience is based on conspiracy theories. So it isn’t much of a surprise that someone I’ve been following for a very long time (16 years!) has gone all-in on COVID-19 conspiracy theories. I’m referring to J.B. Handley, the man who, with his wife, founded Generation Rescue, an antivaccine group dedicated to the now refuted hypothesis that mercury in vaccines causes autism. When last we met him three years ago, he was once again attacking vaccine science and spewing his usual antivaccine misinformation. Before that, he was known for misogynistic attacks on female journalists writing about antivaxxers and attacks against defenders of science in general. These days, he’s posting his pseudoscience on the website of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s antivaccine group Children’s Health Defense in an article entitled “LOCKDOWN LUNACY: The Thinking Person’s Guide.” It’s useful to examine, because it’s basically a cornucopia of COVID-19 misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories.
Handley’s article is constructed based on what he calls “facts.” As is so frequently the case with articles of this sort, his sixteen “facts” are a mixture of facts (deceptively presented), nonsense, and “sort-of” facts that are partially true, all used to cast doubt on the conventional narrative about COVID-19. All of them are basically cherry picked claims. Before I dig in, let me just mention something about J.B. Handley. He is not a scientist of any sort. He’s a businessman who co-founded and co-managed Swander Pace Capital, a private equity firm, until retiring in early 2014. He has no background in science, immunology, autism, infectious disease, vaccines, or, of course, COVID-19. Moreover, he’s known for his admiration of antivaccine icon Andrew Wakefield, whom he likens to “Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one.” None of that stops him from engaging in his usual nonsense of the sort that I’ve been commenting on since 2005. So, with that history in mind, let’s dig in. Here’s his first “fact”:
Fact #1: The Infection Fatality Rate for COVID-19 is somewhere between 0.07-0.20%, in line with seasonal flu.
The Infection Fatality Rate math of ANY new virus ALWAYS declines over time as more data becomes available, as any virologist could tell you. In the early days of COVID-19 where we only had data from China, there was a fear that the IFR could be as high as 3.4%, which would indeed be cataclysmic. On April 17th, the first study was published from Stanford researchers that should have ended all lockdowns immediately, as the scientists reported that their research “implies that the infection is much more widespread than indicated by the number of confirmed cases” and pegged the IFR between 0.12-0.2%. The researchers also speculated that the final IFR, as more data emerged, would likely “be lower.” For context, seasonal flu has an IFR of 0.1%. Smallpox? 30%.
Here, I like to cite Carl T. Bergstrom, a professor of biology, whose Twitter feed is essential reading (if you’re on Twitter) in this era of COVID-19. He notes that this claim is false, both in its estimate of how low the COVID-19 infection fatality rate is and on what the infection fatality rate is of typical seasonal flu. For instance, Handley cites John Ioannidis’ much-criticized (and rightfully so) seroprevalence study carried out in Santa Clara County, California that claimed to have found that the number of people who’d been infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the California county of Santa Clara was 50 to 85 times higher than previously thought, elevated numbers that suggested that the vast majority of COVID-19 were milder than previously thought and that the infection fatality rate was much lower than previously thought. The problems with this study are summarized here, here, and here, but the bottom line is that it examined a biased sample. As Bergstrom notes, the best estimates range of the infection fatality rate of COVID-19 range from 0.5% to 1.5%:
7. Best estimates range from 0.5% to 1.5%.
Even the CDC’s lowball estimates, which caused a scandal when released, ranged from a best case of 0.1% to a best-guess of 0.4% to a worst case of 0.8%. That’s far higher than Handley asserts.https://t.co/MkoxMXp7ah
— Carl T. Bergstrom (@CT_Bergstrom) June 14, 2020
Unsurprisingly, Handley also cites Dr. Scott Atlas, a Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, a well-known conservative think tank known for downplaying the severity of COVID-19 and opposing lockdowns as a strategy to slow the spread of COVID-19. One notes that Dr. Atlas is a neuroradiologist and has no particular expertise in infectious disease or epidemiology. His entire shtick is to argue that COVID-19 is no big deal, that the risk of dying from it is so low that radical measures to stop it are not indicated.
Fact #2: The risk of dying from COVID-19 is much higher than the average IFR for older people and those with co-morbidities, and much lower than the average IFR for younger healthy people, and nearing zero for children
This is true, but the proper response to this is: So What? Handley basically uses these data to argue that it’s only old people who are dying; so closing schools makes no sense. There is an argument t