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Sun 25 October 2020
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Nafeez Ahmed reveals how a high-profile letter to Boris Johnson was based on ‘fringe pseudoscience’ and co-drafted by a Government advisor who downplayed the COVID-19 death toll

A pernicious but flawed narrative has come to dominate the public debate over the second COVID-19 wave. It is the idea that the science is somehow irreparably divided on what to do about the pandemic. 

This notion is encapsulated in two different letters sent to the Government by what the press has portrayed as two groups of esteemed scientists – one group supporting the reintroduction of social distancing restrictions, and the other criticising efforts to ‘suppress’ the Coronavirus. 

Widespread media coverage of the letter has suggested a deep-seated schism at the heart of the British scientific community about how to respond to the crisis.

In reality, the authors of the letter that is critical of a COVID-19 suppression strategy have numerous ties to Conservative and Republican Party lobby groups as well as to various agencies of the Government, including HM Treasury, the Ministry of Defence and the ‘Nudge’ Unit – ties which represent potentially serious conflicts of interest. 

The damage to public discourse has been done. Large segments of the public are convinced that the scientific community is fundamentally divided on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this is untrue.

Worse, this group’s claims about the Coronavirus have no basis in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Instead, it represents what one top British epidemiologist has described as “a fringe group of scientists”, out of sync with “most of the public health experts in the world”.


The ‘Let It Rippers’

The main authors of that letter are Professor Sunetra Gupta (a theoretical epidemiologist at Oxford University), Professor Carl Heneghan (director of Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine), Professor Karol Sikora (consultant oncologist at the University of Buckingham) and Sam Williams (director and co-founder of the Economic Insight consultancy).

A version of this letter was published by the Spectator magazine on Monday under the title ‘Boris Must Urgently Rethink his Covid Strategy’. It criticised the current strategy of ‘suppression of the virus, until such a time that a vaccine can be deployed’ as “increasingly unfeasible”. The strategy, it claimed, is “leading to significant harm across all age groups, which likely offsets any benefits.”

But, according to Professor Stephen Griffin of Leeds University’s School of Medicine – who is also the Chair-Elect of the UK Microbiology Society’s Virus Division – the letter amounted to “little more than a thinly veiled return to a herd immunity strategy and the human cost for this has not changed since Spring, nor is it likely to – one only has to look across to countries like the US, Brazil and India to see this reality”.

Griffin pointed out that “whilst certainly not the majority, we know that younger and otherwise healthy individuals can sadly succumb to the virus, plus it is becoming increasingly clear that long-term effects, even in patients with relatively ‘mild’ COVID-19, represent a significant clinical concern going forwards”.


Letter to Government – Drafted by Paid Advisor to the Government 

What neither the Spectator nor the original letter acknowledged is that one of the co-authors of the letter, Sam Williams, is a Government consultant who has worked with a range of government agencies including HM Treasury.

From August 2018 to September 2020, Williams’ firm, Economic Insight Ltd., received a £2.3 million Government contract. It has worked with the Conservative-led Government since as early as 2013.

The firm has advised HM Treasury and the Government’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), as well as performed economic research for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (as well as its former incarnation the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), along with several other agencies such as the Office of Rail and Road and the National Air Traffic System.

Under the tenure of his latest contract, Williams’ firm published a bizarre piece of research in late June, An Improved Measure of Deaths due to COVID-19 in England and Wales. The paper aimed to show that COVID-19 deaths in the UK were being massively overestimated (by as much as more than 50%) and that the lockdown had only killed 21,000 people. It claimed that the lockdown had produced more net deaths than the disease. 

The same lobbies that helped bring Johnson into power, many of which are climate science deniers, are doing their best to dismantle the already frayed and flawed structures of scientific advice informing the Government’s strategy.

The paper, co-authored by Williams himself with two economists (from Loughborough and Sheffield Universities), received high-profile coverage from the health and science editors of The Telegraph, despite not being peer-reviewed or published in any scientific journal. 

Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King’s College London, described Williams as “the author of the single worst ‘economics’ paper on COVID-19 I’ve read so far, which is a *very* high bar” and said that Williams “is *not* representative of economists’ views”.

Documents from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) reveal that, back in March and April, the Government was about to commission “actuarial analysis” to examine “health impacts associated with the economic consequences of interventions” and “long-term impacts of interventions on health, including socio-economic effects on health”. Some of this “economic work” was already being undertaken under the purview of the Treasury, the minutes showed. 

When Loughborough University was contacted to find out if it could throw light on the funding behind the COVID-19 study by Economic Insight Ltd., its press officers remained unusually reticent. 


Government Consultants Appear to Falsify Death Toll

Economic Insight’s website contains no further detail about why the company had suddenly decided to venture into the study of pandemic mortality rates. What is clear is that it conducted the research within the period of its active management consultancy contract with the Government. 

Neither Williams nor his economist co-authors Professor Karli Glass and Professor Anthony Glass (both of whom also signed Williams’ letter to the Government) have any experience whatsoever in conducting research on fatality rates. 

To help fact-check it in more detail, I sent their paper to D Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and statistical geneticist at Barts and The London School of Medicine’s William Harvey Research Institute, Queen Mary University. Formerly a senior staff scientist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Gurdasani co-leads the GeCIP project at the Department of Health & Social Care’s Genomics England. She has published widely in the peer-reviewed literature, including on the COVID-19 pandemic in The Lancet Global Health

To her, the Economic Insight paper on COVID-19 deaths “is pseudoscience” as the “model or the premise doesn’t even stand up to basic scientific scrutiny”. 

The paper argued that problems in the way Public Health England collected and categorised data relating to COVID-19 would lead deaths to be overestimated. But Dr Gurdasani pointed out that the authors relied selectively on data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for “excess deaths” but not for COVID-19 deaths – despite ONS data circumventing those problems because it is based solely on deaths caused by COVID-19 as certified by doctors (either from testing positive, or due to COVID-19 symptoms). 

“This is how we collect death data on all diseases,” said Gurdasani. “These have COVID-19 on their death certificate, which is fairly reliable, and don’t suffer from the issues described in the paper. These are publicly available, and used extensively for COVID-19 analysis and modelling – so very unclear as to why they would choose to use flawed data, given their premise that they would like more accurate estimates.”

The Government’s own data produced by the ONS provides a figure of 52,514 excess deaths across England and Wales due to COVID-19 up to 11 September. This is “widely accepted” as a reliable estimate of the “minimum number of deaths related to COVID-19 this year”. According to the ONS itself, the gap between reported COVID-19 deaths as catalogued by Public Health England and the ONS excess death figures is most likely to be “undiagnosed” COVID-19.

“I can go into the many statistical issues with the model, but they’re too many to highlight really,” added Gurdasani. “We can’t really model a pandemic trajectory with the sort of model that’s been used.”


Funded by a Financier Linked to Trump’s Inner Circle

Sam Williams’ co-authors of the anti-suppression letter to Government also each have dubious potential conflicts of interest. 

Professor Carl Heneghan set-up and directs the Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service, the “major benefactors” of which are “Maria and David Willetts”. The latter are regular donors to both Cambridge and Oxford Universities (largely via the Ferraras Willetts Foundation).

Maria Willetts made her wealth in finance, serving her last position as President of Chase Capital Partners in New York, but now has direct ties to senior figures in US President Donald Trump’s inner circle. She sits on the board of Oxford University’s Rothermere American Institute (RAI) alongside Christopher B. Burnham, a former official in the George W. Bush administration who went on to join Trump’s Transition Team and in 2019 was appointed to the Pentagon’s Defense Business Board. Burnham is also co-founding chairman and CEO of Cambridge Global Capital, which holds major investments in private healthcare

Another of Willetts’ colleagues at the RAI is Mary Jo Jacobi, a former senior aide to President Ronald Reagan who went on to join President George Bush’s Cabinet. She was later appointed to the Government’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments up to 2017, and now sits on the Foreign Office’s Wilton Park Advisory Council. 

They represent what one top British epidemiologist has described as ‘a fringe group of scientists’, out of sync with ‘most of the public health experts in the world’.

Heneghan’s Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service publishes regular updates on the pandemic – many of which offer sceptical takes on issues such as death toll calculations, but none of which can be considered a reliable part of the scientific literature. Each entry is essentially self-published by Heneghan and contains the following disclaimer at the end: “… the article has not been peer-reviewed; it should not replace individual clinical judgement and the sources cited should be checked… The views are not a substitute for professional medical advice”. 

Sadly, this important notice has not made it into the Spectator’s print-outs of Heneghan’s arguments. In fact, I was not able to find a single peer-reviewed study by Heneghan about COVID-19 in the scientific literature.


Republican Shill

What of the other co-authors?

As an oncologist, Professor Karol Sikora lacks field-specific expertise in understanding COVID-19. This might be alleviated if he had published some relevant original research in the scientific literature. Unfortunately, he hasn’t.

But he does have an illustrious record of lobbying on behalf of the Conservative Party. For instance, he founded the Doctors for Reform group – a free-market pressure group which was accused in 2004 of being “supported by the Conservative Party”, according to the British Medical Journal.

In 2009, he was paid to appear in US adverts for the Republican Party created by a lobby group, Conservatives for Patient Rights, which attacked the NHS and President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms. That year, he was caught out lying to Parliament’s Health Select Committee by claiming, falsely, that he was a professor at Imperial College for 22 years.

In 2014, he called for elderly cancer patients to be denied expensive drugs in favour of younger patients. Two years later, he turned up on the editorial board for an anti-NHS report commissioned by Conservative MP and former Environment Minister Owen Paterson, authored by Kristian Niemietz of the right-wing libertarian Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), part of the Tufton Street network of lobbyists receiving vast amounts of ‘dark money’ from US special interests linked to Trump. He also conveniently failed to declare his personal conflicts of interests in the privatisation of cancer care in relation to this report.

He went on by taking to BBC News to describe the NHS as “the last bastion of communism”.  Naturally, he saw no need to mention any of this in his letter to the Government.


‘Herd Immunity’ Model Promoted by MOD’s Go-To PR Agency

The other figure behind the letter in question is Professor Sunetra Gupta. She is the co-author of two Oxford University studies this year which used mathematical modelling to claim that Britain was well on its way to achieving ‘herd immunity’ – the point when sufficiently large numbers of people contract COVID-19 and become immune, thus preventing its further transmission. 

Neither of Gupta’s studies has been peer-reviewed nor published in a reputable scientific journal, but both generated considerable media coverage in the Financial Times, the Sun and ITV News.

Based on these papers, Gupta has repeatedly claimed that, as early as May, a large degree of ‘herd immunity’ had already been achieved, such that the COVID-19 crisis is “on the way out” – a notion that appears to be obviously disproved by actual events, yet somehow continues to be taken seriously by parts of the press. 

This is pseudoscience… The model or the premise doesn’t even stand up to basic scientific scrutiny.

Dr Deepti Gurdasani

In July, Gupta’s colleague Heneghan made similar claims citing Sweden as a brilliant example of achieving higher levels of immunity by allowing the virus to run through the population. “It means we are at the end of the first wave of excess deaths and we are now back to normal,” Heneghan declared. As a team of top Swedish medical scientists wrote in The Lancet, the reality is that Sweden’s strategy resulted in the country experiencing one of the highest COVID-19 fatality rates in Scandinavia, with scant evidence of “silently acquired herd immunity”.

“Maybe the way to counter it now is to say, actually, not only is it a good thing for young people to go out there and become immune, but that is almost their duty,” she enthused in an interview during the summer. She later complained to the Evening Standard that her team has “found it difficult to publish our work in mainstream journals”, blaming the scientific consensus: “Sadly anything that deviates from the consensus has been met with criticism – not simply of the science, but we’ve been labelled as saying things that are dangerous.”

The scientific community arguably rejects Gupta’s work because of its quality.


Flogging A Dead ‘Herd Immunity’

When Gupta’s first paper was published in March, I had spoken to Professor Tim Colbourn about its claims.

Colbourn is Associate Professor of Global Health Epidemiology and Evaluation and works at the UCL Institute for Global Health in London. He said that the model’s entire foundational assumption was demonstrably wrong and did not track with actual data on infection, which he claimed Gupta and her colleagues had “not even checked”.

William Hanage, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, similarly said that Gupta’s model is based on “a lot of assumptions about severity, for which the true numbers are just not known”.

Professor Gupta’s second paper was published in July and claimed that ‘herd immunity’ might be achievable if only 10% of the population acquires the virus, after which it would fizzle out. Gupta went on record to express her belief that this means that ‘herd immunity’ may have already been achieved in London and New York. Apart from the fact that the virus is manifestly not simply fizzling out, Dr Gurdasani told me that the biggest problem with the new model is that it lacks sufficient empirical corroboration.

“The whole premise of this model is flawed,” she said. “The evidence around reduced susceptibility of sub-populations is limited, and requires much further investigation before considering an impact of this at population level… There is absolutely no evidence currently to support this theory. Actually, leaving aside the theory around resistance due to previous infections, we don’t even have evidence that those who actually get infected with COVID-19 would develop sufficient long-term immunity to not be infected again, so the idea of intrinsic resistance is even shakier.” 

The model further relies on the assumption that those who have recovered from COVID-19 cannot be re-infected. But once again “there is no evidence currently to support this idea,” she said “so I’m really stumped as to why this is something that’s being discussed as if it is fact”.

“The usual ‘herd immunity’ thresholds may not even apply to COVID-19, as this may not even be a disease that produces long-term immunity,” she added. “We just don’t know, and there is no evidence to suggest ‘herd immunity’ even exists or has developed to any significant level in the population, if it does.”

Gurdasani did not dismiss the importance of assessing the immunity question. But her point is a powerful one: we are not in a position to answer the question and Gupta’s claim that she has the answer is simply false. “We need population-wide studies of susceptibility, including associating cellular studies of T cell response to COVID-19,” Gurdasani added.

We can only answer the question on the basis of empirical data from widespread population testing, not abstract theoretical modelling based on unfounded assumptions (some of which contradict real-world data). 

Dr Griffin is in agreement with this critique.

For the majority of viruses, he said, ‘herd immunity’ has not been achieved. But for COVID-19, “we also know that immunity wanes” and “it is unclear whether such responses might be helpful, or indeed potentially comprise a hindrance upon subsequent exposure to the virus”. 

He added: “Similarly, the cross-reactive immune responses within individuals previously exposed to certain seasonal coronaviruses have a poorly understood impact… yet as they seemingly do not prevent reinfection with these endemic viruses, any possible effect is likely limited to reducing, rather than preventing disease.”

Gupta’s theory was able to receive massive publicity with support from a PR agency, Sugrue Communications. The firm has direct ties to the Ministry of Defence and the so-called ‘Nudge’ Unit – the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team, the director of which, Dr David Halpern, played a key role in pushing the ‘herd immunity’ strategy inside Government, as well as to the public.

Gupta, Heneghan, Sikora and Williams did not respond to request for comment, including to a question about whether a politically-connected PR firm was providing them with assistance.

Since I first covered the role of Sugrue Communications in promoting Gupta’s work, the firm has deleted all mention of its COVID-19 PR work from its website.


Distracting from the Consensus

The damage to public discourse has been done. Large segments of the population seem to be convinced that the scientific community is fundamentally divided on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this is untrue.

As Dr Gurdasani remarked, this is “a fringe group of scientists, many without any expertise in public health or epidemiology who are advocating one view (‘herd immunity’), with most of the public health experts in the world advocating another”.

As has been done to great effect by fossil fuel lobbies in relation to climate change, the letter fiasco seems to demonstrate that the British public is under sustained assault from a secretive information war, conducted by vested interests with myriad connections to various points of leverage inside the Boris Johnson administration. 

The same lobbies that helped bring Johnson into power, many of which are climate science deniers, are doing their best to dismantle the already frayed and flawed structures of scientific advice informing the Government’s strategy. These are the same lobbies which have urged Johnson to exploit the COVID-19 crisis as a mechanism to gut public health infrastructure while privatising key areas of the NHS, predictably paving the way for a second wave.

Indeed, there is unambiguous evidence that someone at the highest levels among the Prime Minister’s advisors is actively seeking to influence his thinking by leveraging this pseudoscience. Hours before Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance held their Government press conference this week on the new COVID-19 measures, Gupta and Heneghan had gone to Downing Street to brief Boris Johnson personally about how to respond to the rise in recorded cases.

Yet having published nothing in the peer-reviewed literature on COVID-19, neither Gupta nor Heneghan can be properly considered scientific experts on the pandemic. Why, then, did someone within Downing Street insist on inviting them to brief the Prime Minister himself, no less?

Getting bogged down in confusion between seemingly polarised and incommensurate options – lockdown or no-lockdown, suppression or let it rip – distracts from the reality that this is a false choice: one that obscures the genuine scientific consensus that has emerged on how to most effectively respond to the pandemic while protecting the economy to the highest degree possible.

That scientific consensus, as reflected in a recent study in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, suggests that the only viable way forward is to establish a robust national test, trace and isolate programme on the basis of a strengthened public health infrastructure. 

“Nobody in the UK wants another national lockdown, but at the same time COVID, public health, wellbeing and economic recovery are inextricably linked,” said Dr Stephen Griffin. “This must be enabled by efficient, rapid testing and tracing, and by a clear public health guided message on appropriate, targeted measures to interrupt transmission. 

“It is clear that countries that have been able to control the virus supported by such measures are not only able to return to normal life in many respects, but are also able to rapidly deal with any new introductions and ensuing local outbreaks. The UK must reinvest in its existing public health infrastructure and the NHS to ensure that all aspects of COVID – and non-COVID related healthcare can be met.”

This article was corrected on 24/09/2020 to reflect the true status of Tim Colbourn at the UCL Institute for Global Health in London.


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