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DEEP DIVE: Covid Myths
How the medical establishment AND skeptics failed
Warning: This newsletter will always hit sacred cows from ALL political tribes when needed, and this post does so in particular.
It starts with five failures of the medical establishment to the tell the truth.
Then it goes through five tragic failures in reasoning from prominent skeptics.
Why the Medical Establishment (Deservedly) Lost Americans’ Trust
The following all played big roles in Americans’ loss of trust of medical authorities:
1) More than 1,000 medical professionals signed a widely-publicized open letter arguing that protesters should be advised differently about Covid based on their race and policy views. They wrote:
A public health response to [BLM] demonstrations is also warranted, but this message must be wholly different from the response to white protesters resisting stay-home orders …
Many of the medical “experts” who signed this politicized nonsense have prestigious credentials. 20 signatories have ties to Harvard, for example. The geniuses go on:
… we do not condemn [BLM] gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people … This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders …
If there’s a clearer way to say “I’m intentionally weaponizing public health guidance against protestors based on whether I agree with them” — I’m not sure what it is.
Hey, at least they were open about it?
2) The American Medical Association recently released a guide calling on doctors to use politicized, Orwellian language with patients.
As Alex Tabarrok notes, the AMA tells physicians to lecture patients about health disparities caused by “landowners and large corporations” who are “increasingly centralizing political and financial power”.
Also, the AMA advises that, instead of telling patients that “low-income people” are more likely to get heart disease, doctors should instead lecture:
“People underpaid and forced into poverty as a result of banking policies, real estate developers gentrifying neighborhoods, and corporations weakening the power of labor movements, among others, have the highest level of [heart disease]” …
Yes, the American Medical Association really does give that as an example of how they think doctors should speak to patients.
Do we still wonder why people don’t trust official guidance?
3) Fauci and others told a “noble lie” at the start of the pandemic that cloth/surgical masks don’t prevent Covid (a “noble lie” is when someone lies to you, but the lie is “for your own good.”) Noah Smith puts it well:
… they really did lie … according to Fauci, public health experts knew that even cloth masks helped prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they were worried that if they admitted that cloth masks work, people would conclude that N95 masks work even better (which is true), and hoard N95s, thus depriving medical workers who needed the supplies more.
Experts later not only reversed their position, but went into high dudgeon mode and acted as if a grandma dies every time someone doesn’t wear a cloth mask.
The reality is complex and fits no political tribe’s narrative well. Studies are all over the board, from finding no effect, to claiming 50% reduction. Overall, it seems masks probably work somewhat: one study found a ~25% reduction in Covid cases if an entire population wears masks in public. It also found no effect from mask mandates, which points to low compliance beyond what people would have done voluntarily.
4) The media/tech establishment pushed a “noble lie” that natural immunity is worse than vaccine-only immunity.
As readers of Maximum Truth have known since September, multiple large studies are clear: getting a vaccine on top of natural immunity DOES increase immunity. But also, natural immunity alone is longer-lasting and at most times better than a having only gotten vaccinated.
But gatekeepers like Twitter and the Associated Press can’t get into that nuance, as it might give people an “out” to not get a vaccine.
So, instead, Twitter’s media team blasted this out at the top of Twitter’s curated “explore” section:
Twitter’s news team cited a CDC Kentucky study that said the former, but nothing about the latter. They also cited a CDC webpage, which only said that “don’t know for sure how long [natural protection] lasts” beyond 90 days (nothing in this world is “for sure”, but huge Israeli datasets show natural immunity remains strong up to 12 months out.)
[Correction: The initial version of this post stated that the CDC did not say what Twitter claimed. But the CDC did recently put out a study suggesting that vaccine-only immunity might offer more protection than natural-only immunity. Their finding is the opposite of what studies in the UK and Israel find. Edit 12/11/21: I have now carefully gone through the whole new CDC study. It's a weak study, with a bizarre methodology. It shouldn't be taken seriously in light of the well-done studies finding that natural-immunity-alone is much better than vax-alone. Click footnote for a detailed explanation of the new study’s flaws.]
5) The medical, media, and tech establishments told a “noble lie” that Covid-19 was naturally-occurring, and not the result of a lab leak in Wuhan.
To this day, “fact checkers” that Facebook pays to censor people claim that the lab leak theory is “INCORRECT.” (The all-CAPS is theirs.)
But at this point, many people from all political tribes (72% of Americans) realize that narrative was wrong and that the virus likely came from a lab.
Let’s quickly run through some evidence:
— UK Independent: US intelligence found researchers at Wuhan lab were hospitalized shortly before coronavirus outbreak
— Politico: In 2018, [American] Diplomats Warned of Risky Coronavirus Experiments in a Wuhan Lab. No One Listened… [Wuhan] scientists had discovered … a "spike protein” that was particularly good at grabbing on to a specific receptor in human lung cells … the American diplomats were shocked by what they heard. The Chinese researchers [at the Wuhan Institute of Virology] told them they didn’t have enough properly trained technicians to safely operate …
— Former deputy Secretary of State, on CBS: “[The Wuhan Lab operations were] carried out at biosafety level 2, which has been compared to the safety level roughly of a dentist office.”
— New York Post: Scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were planning to genetically enhance airborne coronaviruses and release aerosols containing “novel chimeric spike proteins” among cave bats in Yunnan, China, according to the 2018 proposal submitted to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
They also planned to alter coronaviruses to infect humans more easily by introducing “human-specific cleavage sites” to bat coronaviruses.
That’s getting pretty “red handed” …
And now, Matt Ridley adds yet another piece of evidence, revealing that the closest bat-coronavirus to Covid-19 has been found in bats in neighboring Laos — and that documents show that as a source of bats sent to Wuhan's virus lab.
Despite the trove of evidence, all this was censored as a conspiracy theory. Facebook banned it for almost a year, which ended on May 26, 2021, the very day that President Biden admitted it might be true and asked for an investigation.
The reason for the cover-up was politics, not science, as several scientists have admitted. From NBC:
"At the time, it was scarier to be associated with Trump and to become a tool for racists, so people didn't want to publicly call for an investigation into lab origins," [scientist Alina Chan] said.
Now, more scientists are comfortable confronting the gamut of plausible theories…
The combined self-censorship and tech-censorship mean the world has still not had any serious conversation about lab security and virus research. Failure to focus on that could yield devastating pandemics down the road.
Given all the above, Americans had excellent reasons to lose trust in the medical establishment and the establishment journalists who cover it.
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The above lists just a few of reasons people lost trust. I’m leaving out many examples, such as how establishment media misleadingly referred to Ivermectin as merely “horse dewormer” (it’s routinely used in humans) or how they unfairly praised New York and demonized Florida — even as Florida was doing well, by the numbers.
But Florida, sadly, later lost its edge compared to the rest of the country. It now has the 9th highest per capita death toll in the country. Here’s a constantly-updating map I made.
[Correction, 12/11/21: when Florida’s larger elderly population is considered, the state actually did better than average. Also, an earlier version of this post alleged that Florida fell behind due to vaccine hesitancy. That was wrong. Actually, Florida was vaccinated slightly higher than the national average, but still had more deaths this summer, probably due to a high elderly population that had been shielded the previous year. However, red states in general had significantly lower vaccine rates and significantly higher deaths this year.]
Which brings us to the next part two of this deep dive…
Tragic mistakes made by skeptics of the medical establishment
6) Skeptics are wrong to say that 70% of Covid deaths in the UK are among vaccinated people, as if it were a bad thing
As former NY Times reporter Alex Berenson argued on Joe Rogan’s #1 podcast:
BERENSON: I have to keep saying this to people, because they almost don’t believe it. In the UK, 70+ percent of the people who die now are fully vaccinated.
ROGAN: 70 percent?!
BERENSON: 70 percent! … the numbers are there in the government documents.
This has been echoed by many, including US Senator Ron Johnson.
The statistic is true, but extremely misleading when presented that way, because it misses that about 95% of elderly people are vaccinated in the UK. If the vaccine were totally ineffective, we should expect about 95% of people dying to be vaccinated.
So the 70% stat shows the vaccine is WORKING.
How well? Let’s do the math.
If 95% of elderly people are vaccinated, then only 5% are unvaccinated.
That 5%, roughly, makes up about 30% of the deaths. Meaning they are 6 times as likely to die. That points to an 86% (6/7) effectiveness rate of vaccines, which incidentally IS RIGHT IN LINE with what the clinical studies show.
The US data shows the same thing, except with unvaccinated people being 11 times more likely to die.
This is really strong evidence that vaccines work as advertised, yet it’s billed as the opposite.
The new Omicron variant may change things until a variant-specific vaccine is developed. I’m keeping a close eye on the South Africa’s data for clues on that, but it’s too early to say.
7) Skeptics overhyped fears about clinical studies.
Many fear that Big Pharma companies are hiding problems to boost profit.
The British Medical Journal has reported allegations from a Pfizer whistleblower about lapses in basic protocols at a few Covid trial sites.
So let’s not blindly trust the clinical studies, and instead look at broad-based population-level data instead.
Let’s go first to the United Kingdom, a country with a high vaccination rate by the time Delta hit.
Look at that third Delta wave, the only one after vaccines. Cases (red) spike. But also, deaths (gray) hardly budged!
That’s in line with what we knew about vaccines preventing deaths but not doing well against cases, regarding Delta.
One might wonder — maybe Delta was just milder? Yet we can see that’s not the case from other countries.
Look at the US, with a much lower vaccination rate:
The United States had a large enough elderly population that was unvaccinated that the deaths were similar in shape to the cases. To give a sense of the problem: In Texas in the Delta wave, 80% of deaths were unvaccinated.
That’s almost the opposite of the UK, and the difference is vaccines.
Other countries are consistent with these trends.
India, with almost no vaccines, saw far more deaths during Delta than in earlier waves.
Israel was cited by skeptics as proving the lack of efficacy of vaccines, but its graph is right in the middle of the US/UK graphs — showing that deaths were reduced compared to cases, but not as much as in the UK.
The reason is that Israel vaccinated months earlier than anyone else, and as a result, efficacy already waned a lot by the time Delta hit. As we have known since September, the Pfizer vaccine falls below 50% effectiveness about 5 months out. (That does mean that boosters are important if you’re worried about catching Covid.)
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8) Some skeptics claim that lockdowns never work
We’ve all heard this, and it’s true that attempted lockdowns were ineffective in the US and other places where governments have relatively weak control over people.
But when countries went ALL OUT with their lockdowns — namely Australia, New Zealand, and China — Covid deaths were virtually eliminated.
This graph shows that nearly 250 per 100,000 Americans (aka, 1-in-400) died of Covid. In contrast, about 1-in-12,000 Australians died of Covid. In New Zealand and China, virtually nobody died of Covid, when adjusted for population.
But, one might wonder, what if Covid cases aren’t being counted right? Or, what if lockdowns saved people from Covid, but they died of other things, like suicide or delayed medical treatment?
Fortunately, there’s data on excess deaths from all causes (not just Covid) compared to pre-pandemic:
Here, the US lost over 1-in-400 lives from Covid + reactions to Covid, while Australia and NZ saw fewer people die during the pandemic than in normal times! (Less driving probably helped.)
Lives will be permanently saved, not merely deferred. That’s because of vaccines (as we saw above) but also because medicines like Paxlovid are about to come online that further reduce death by 89% by deactivating an enzyme that Covid needs to reproduce.
Were the lives saved worth the cost to the economy, and to wellbeing? I don’t know. A future post will look into the complex cost-benefit there.
But were these draconian lockdowns worth the loss of freedom? Worth the permanent increase in state control? Many of us would rather live in a freer place with a higher death rate.
But regardless, the data are clear that draconian hard-line lockdowns can save lives.
9) Contrary to skeptics, side effect harm is NOT comparable to Covid harm
The VAERS side effect database shows over 10,000 deaths following vaccination. Some think the VAERS number is an over-count (false reports) and others, an undercount — missed incidents are very common in such databases.
One skeptic asked me: how do we know it’s not really 100,000 side-effect deaths?
Fortunately there is a way to get to the bottom of this — involving taking a big picture view of the data landscape rather than getting in the mud with flawed datasets.
Thanks to Australia and New Zealand holding Covid deaths to near zero, we have a clean dataset un-confounded by Covid deaths.
Between May and October 2021, in both NZ and Australia, more than half of their populations were given vaccines, including Pfizer and Moderna.
If Covid vaccines cause death, we should see rising all-cause mortality as they are administered. But here’s what we see:
Between the main vaccination period of May-Oct (bounded by the vertical black lines) Australia’s mortality rises slightly, and New Zealand’s falls slightly.
This suggests deaths from vaccine side effects are negligible; zero, as far we can tell (unlike Covid itself, which is super visible in the US line.)
Statistically, this shows it is ridiculous to worry about death by vaccine compared to Covid.
But! What about unknown long-term vaccine effects?
This is one of the stickiest arguments, because it’s impossible to prove the future.
But there are good reasons not to worry.
First, has there ever been a vaccine that caused side effects that only kicked after more than a year? I can’t find any.
Second, which is more likely to have a mysterious late-appearing side effect… the vaccine, or Covid itself? Both hijack your cells to produce foreign objects: The vaccine directs your cells to produce Covid spikes, which your immune system practices attacking.
Whereas Covid itself directs your cells to produce full viruses — spikes, body, and all — which go on to infect more cells, until either you die or beat it.
Is there any biological reason to think the vaccine would be worse?
Third: some worry about new mRNA vaccines — but there are still the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines which use the old-fashioned method. [Edit, 12/11/21: As multiple commenters have pointed out, the J&J/AstraZeneca method is also sort of new. It’s about a decade old when it comes to use in humans. It was approved for Ebola by EU+FDA's normal (not emergency) processes, pre-pandemic, and was used on 10s of thousands of people in Africa before the Covid pandemic. But it seems it hadn't been *widely* used in developed countries before the pandemic.]
Note: Vaccines still cause (almost always non-lethal) side effects, and certain people with special health situations might not want them — everyone has to decide for themselves.
10) Skeptics overhyped vaccines causing Covid variants
the fact that those variants are good at creating breakthrough cases among the vaccinated implies selection by those vaccines has produced these variants
That isn’t true, and we can see that because Delta is better at breaking through natural immunity, too — not just vaccine immunity.
Delta also sprung up in India in the spring, when almost no vaccines had been administered in that country. Omicron developed in South Africa, where less than a quarter of the population is vaccinated.
Viruses are always mutating. That’s just evolution. The only way to reduce virus mutation is to ensure that there are as few viruses in humans as possible — which is done by increasing immunity without involving the virus itself.
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In sum: The medical establishment deservedly lost Americans’ trust, but popular skeptics got things horribly wrong, too. Together, this led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
But, let’s not be entirely pessimistic! A few independent, critical thinkers have been proven RIGHT about Covid questions much more often than the authorities or auto-skeptics. Here are a few who stand out: Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution, Scott Alexander of Astral Codex Ten, Matt Ridley of Rational Optimist, and many others whom I am forgetting — please suggest them in the comments.
DISCLAIMER: Above is not medical advice, but rather my best attempt to lay out the most important data using my statistics knowledge. If you see any NEW important data, or anything I missed, or mistakes, please let me know in the comments.
In Israel, for natural immunity with an average duration of 8 months (and ranging from 4 and 12 months):
SARS-CoV-2 naïve vaccinees had a 5.96-fold (95% CI, 4.85 to 7.33) increased risk for breakthrough infection [compared to naturally-immune people] …
See here for more: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.08.24.21262415v1
The CDC authors admit, "The findings in this report are subject to at least seven limitations," and the biggest issue that I see is the bizarre choice of study method. Instead of trying to follow people with natural-vs-vax immunity and compare their results, the study strangely did this:
First - looked at hospitalizations for COVID-19-LIKE illnesses, and checked how many were natural-immune-only vs vax-only.
Second - looked at what % of those people actually tested positive as Covid in the hospital.
Third - act as if that % -- the proportion of people with confirmed-Covid to Covid-LIKE-symptoms in a hospital -- shows effectiveness of natural-vs-vax.
It doesn't make much sense. This is an EXTREMELY weaks metric to look at. Covid-19 hospital testing is fickle, in that it has to be done right in the window where the virus is active. Many people have Covid, and are hospitalized, but a test isn't done right in the window where the virus is active.
On that note, the low %s are extremely suspicious. In the study, a mere 5 to 9% of people hospitalized for Covid-like symptoms were confirmed positive with a test in the hospital!
Laboratory-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection was identified among 324 (5.1%) of 6,328 fully vaccinated persons and among 89 of 1,020 (8.7%) unvaccinated, previously infected persons.
Does that sound right? A mere 5 to 9% of people hospitalized for Covid-LIKE symptoms actually had Covid?
I can certainly believe that these small %s makes up all the people who they tested in the short active-virus window. But it's not plausible that it's reflective of how many actually had Covid -- which would be necessary for the study method to be valid.
If those super-low numbers WERE reflective of the proportion who actually were hospitalized for Covid, then Covid would be dramatically overhyped. But we know that's not the case from all-cause mortality data, which shows many more deaths during Covid. So it's the study's method that's garbage.
Their result is almost certainly the result of randomness in whether people were tested at the hospital within the often-narrow window where the virus is active.
Oddly, the authors don't even seem to consider this issue in their paper. They do identify seven other flaw in their method -- but to me, the already-outlined problem is big enough to sink the study.
It would have been much smarter to take a population-based approach.
For example, the study found that, among people hospitalized with confirmed Covid, 89 people had natural-immunity-alone and 324 people had vax-alone. So among hospitalized people who definitely had Covid, 3.6 times as many were vaxxed.
And among people who were hospitalized for Covid-LIKE symptoms, 6.3 times as many were vaxxed-alone as had natural immunity alone.
To make good use of those numbers, we would need an estimate of the prevalence in the general population of natural-immunity-alone vs vax-alone. Had the authors attempted to collect that info, they would have an interesting study. They did not.
As the CDC paper admits,
"These findings differ from those of a retrospective records-based cohort study in Israel, which did not find higher protection for vaccinated adults compared with those with previous infection."
They're guilty of using weasel-words there, which, on top of the crazy methodology, makes one wonder about their objectivity.
Technically, yes, the Israeli study "did not find higher protection for vaccinated adults" as they say -- but it would be much more accurate to say: "The Israeli study found about 13 times LESS protection for vaccinated-only adults, due to waning immunity after several months."
See here for more on the Israeli study, and others that touch on the issue: https://maximumtruth.substack.com/p/deep-dive-should-naturally-immune
Thanks to Patrick Rusk in the comments for first noting the basic issue here.
Thanks also to Philip in the comments for noting yet an additional study finding natural immunity is much better and lasts over a year: https://academic.oup.com/cid/advance-article/doi/10.1093/cid/ciab999/6448857
This analysis assumes uses elderly people as a proxy for “vulnerable people”, which is close to true as 80% of deaths are among elderly people. However, it’s not exactly the same, and the calculations would change slightly if the proportion of vulnerable people with the vaccine were <|> 95%. But “vulnerable” is not an available data category that I see, so unless someone finds that, we’ll stick with elderly people as a proxy. At 80% of deaths, using “elderly” won’t be off by much.