COVID-19 Misinformation

COVID-19 Misinformation, by David Evans

There is some terrible misinformation floating around the web, some being repeated by reputable commentators. For example, financial commentator Bob Moriarty, when writing about coronavius, wrote yesterday:

Iceland tested 36,000 of their citizens, about 10% of the total for the tiny country. They found half the people tested showed positive for the virus, however there had only been seven deaths out of 1,600 cases of the virus.

Unfortunately, many believe that half of Iceland has had COVID-19. There were hardly any sick or dying people in Iceland; therefore herd immunity works, the death rate is tiny, and the lockdown measures everywhere else are a colossally stupid waste of time. Seems like a big claim, worth checking.

Well someone’s being colossally stupid. Just follow the link Moriarty offers, to the Daily Mail. Note the headline:

Iceland has tested one-tenth of its population for coronavirus at random and found HALF of those who were positive had the disease without realising – with only seven deaths in 1,600 cases.

See the difference? Iceland found that 50% of those positive for COVID-19 were asymptomatic. Not the same at all. So how many Icelanders have caught COVID-19? Unfortunately the Daily Mail article doesn’t say. However, a minute’s research finds on Wikipedia that 4.7% of the 36,000 people tested were positive.

Furthermore, the sample might not have been random, because apparently the rate among the whole population is believed to be lower. Kari Stefansson is an Icelandic neurologist and chief executive officer of Reykjavik-based biopharmaceutical company deCODE genetics — the company that helped conduct the test mentioned above:

Stefansson said Iceland’s randomized tests revealed that between 0.3%-0.8% of Iceland’s population is infected with the respiratory illness, that about 50% of those who test positive for the virus are asymptomatic when they are tested, and that since mid-March the frequency of the virus among Iceland’s general population who are not at the greatest risk –- those who do not have underlying health conditions or signs and symptoms of COVID-19 –- has either stayed stable or been decreasing.

This data has yielded, he said, yet more knowledge.

“It means the containment efforts of the authorities are working,” he said.

Those reckoning that herd immunity is the way to go because of “the Iceland study” might reconsider: “half the people” becomes just 0.3 to 0.8% under closer examination, same as everywhere else.

A similar misreading mentioned yesterday blew up a rate below 1% in an area of Chicago to 30%. Simple misreading of a headline, and failure to read past the first half of the first sentence.

The rate from the world’s first properly randomized trial, in Austria, found the rate there was about 0.33% (start here).

AFAIK, no county in the world has yet presented evidence that more than 1% of its population has convid-19, even taking into account that up to 80% of those who catch it remain asymptomatic.

Moriarty also mentioned the other favorite data point of the herd immunity supporters:

You have to love the Germans. They just love data and reports. They tested all 1,000 people in a tiny village and realized that a lot more people showed positive to the virus antibodies than they realized, some 15% of the total.

Here the claim is that 15% of a certain population caught COVID-19. Perhaps, but in any case Gangelt only has a small population. It had previously held a carnival, which became a super-spreader event. Furthermore, the people at the carnival were probably younger and healthier, so the death rate is low. But more importantly, there were problems with the testing:

The problem: It is highly questionable whether there are currently commercial tests that can distinguish between an infection with the new corona virus and an infection with other seasonal corona viruses.

According to the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research, coronaviruses are responsible for about a third of all colds in humans. Four such endemic pathogens also circulate here in the winter half-year. But none of this was explained at the press conference on Thursday morning. …

“These laboratory tests have a high rate of false positive signals, purely technical,” said Drosten.

This means that antibody tests can work even if people have not been infected with the new Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus, but their immune system has antibodies against one of the four seasonal corona viruses.

So I don’t think this is evidence that Germany or any other country has an infection rate anywhere near 15%.

UPDATE: For those who are concerned that the death toll from COVID-19 is much inflated (and it is probably inflated some), here are the deaths in NY by month:

Note that spike in the last month, to April 4. COVID-19 is causing extra deaths.