The professor believes new lockdowns will de devastating. She has been vilified as a result
Gerry Gajadharsingh writes:
“I guess I couldn’t do my clinical job without being a Maverick. I’m paid to think laterally which on balance tends to result on better outcomes for many of my patients with complex medical problems. Pushback against orthodoxy is never easy and it’s sad how people who put their head above the parapet can often be vilified (or trolled in this day and age) by people who simply don’t agree with them.
I remember first lecturing to my profession on the subject of the interpretation of blood tests in diagnosis and patient management in Osteopathic practise over 20 years ago. I certainly received my first share of vilification then from some of my colleagues who at the time didn’t feel that diagnostic laboratory testing had any part to play in Osteopathic practise. Well I’m still using both pathological and functional interpretation of blood tests, 20 years on, more than ever, to the benefit of my patients which is the most important thing.
There is no doubt the whole world is a mess because of the COVID-19 situation and the scientific and responses to it. Something has to be done differently and it’s only brave people it seems willing to take the risk. Every single thing that we do has a risk/benefit ratio. A personal example my father Kedar who was 85 years of age went to see is ice specialist in Florida probably unwisely around the beginning of March. He got lockdown in America and the Trinidad government refusing to allow anyone to enter Trinidad including its citizens!! What a compassionate country. After spending four months in Florida he came to the UK in mid-July and sadly died with us a few weeks ago while staying with us in our new home in Wiltshire. Missing his home, his friends and his business had a major impact on him, and I suspect he decided it was his time to go, the saving grace was that he was with his family at the end.
Sunetra Gupta, a professor of theoretical epidemiology at the university, is the focus of the interview and her thoughts in collaboration with other scientists around the world as to how perhaps we need a different approach to the pandemic and its handling.
I hope that you take the time to read the article and come to your own conclusions.”
Last week three leading scientists from Stanford, Harvard and Oxford declared that our governments had got it all wrong on Covid. “Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal,” they wrote, launching a controversial and counterintuitive campaign with glasses of champagne in the rooms of a free market think tank in Massachusetts.
Yesterday we learnt that the British government will further curtail normal life for huge numbers in regions where the disease is heading out of control. Our trio see the rising infection rate rather differently: they believe that Covid-19 is running its predictable and finite course and were it to be left largely alone there would soon develop an effective degree of communal (or, trigger word, “herd”) immunity. As it is, millions across the world will die, victims not of the disease, but of our response.
I am in the sitting room of the Oxford signatory, Sunetra Gupta, a professor of theoretical epidemiology at the university. She is a striking, persuasive woman who speaks Oxford English at high-table level. I ask how she feels about the prospect of more restrictions.
“I feel absolutely devastated,” she says, recalling that since she first spoke out, in spring, it has been out of terror of what lockdown will bring. “I was concerned, not just for the inner-city child sitting there out of school or people going to die at home, give birth on their own, worse still have miscarriages on their own. There was also, for me, India, which is where I come from. Visions of horror came to me of the people in slums. How can you tell someone who doesn’t have a home to stay at home?”
Her local paper, the Oxford Mail, last month wrote a brilliantly excoriating “apology” on behalf of partying students at Oxford Brookes University — a list of reasons that they were “sorry”, ending: “And if they are not sorry, they damn well should be.” As a teacher, Gupta hates the demonising.
“I think it’s absolutely shameful,” she says. “I think students don’t need to wear a facemask. There’s no risk to them. Furthermore, as we’ve said and stressed, the whole foundation of our argument is that if these students acquire immunity then we’ll be much further along in protecting those who are vulnerable.”
And those freshers, their noses pressed to the windows of cramped flats as they await their cold rations? “It’s criminal,” Gupta says. “I find it absolutely staggering that we could do that. I think students should be able to come back.”
The main risk would be to teachers such as herself, and it is a risk she would willingly accept. “We must stop assigning blame and guilt to young people: ‘You are going to cause Granny to die.’ Grannies and grandpas and other people die of flu every year in large numbers, and somebody is giving it to them, but as a society we absorb the blame.”
She does not choose to blame the government for the original lockdown, even if it was counterproductive. The scientists at Imperial College London who modelled that 500,000 people might have died without it could have been right. “What I think we need to stop now is instituting these new measures, which are really going to cause absolute havoc.
“The good news is that actually there is a way out that would also save us from corona deaths, we think, and that’s why we wrote that declaration. The people who were involved arrived at this conclusion completely independently. We didn’t sit down and discuss it. We found each other through what we published or through our voices on the internet or the public domain and decided to come together because we felt there is a way out. That way out is afforded by natural immunity.”
Natural immunity is not a strategy in opposition to a vaccine, which is merely “a way of achieving immunity without the costs”. Gupta is working on a flu vaccine, and although at 55 she does not consider herself vulnerable, she would take a coronavirus vaccine if one was offered. On the other hand, she has not downloaded the NHS Covid-19 app because she does not think that testing and tracking everyone is “feasible”. She observes the rule of six because it is the law and she is no anarchist. In the same spirit she wears a mask where it is mandatory, although she thinks the evidence of their efficacy is “equivocal”.
With this virus come few certainties, she thinks (and, she adds, the language of certainty has unnecessarily enflamed the debate), but her theory of its progress in Britain seems to be this. First, rather than arriving in March and exploding, Covid more likely reached us in January and began a slower climb. In some parts it had reached a peak by lockdown, the middle of the first wave. Second, society has more immunity than we think. It comes not only from antibodies (the estimate that just 10 per cent of us has them does not take into account the capacity of “immunological memory” to release more), but from T-cells, which kill the virus from within infected cells. In addition, our existing immune response to past coronaviruses, such as those causing colds, are likely to have cross-reacted to fight Covid-19. Many get less ill than they might; some will be unable to get the disease at all.
“Our position is that we don’t know, but there’s a lot of evidence suggesting that immunity plays a role in bringing down epidemics. We’ve seen that happening around the world, and we’ve also seen that the lifting of lockdown in areas where the epidemic had raged, like New York, London, Stockholm, didn’t cause a huge rise in cases.”
The levels are going up now, though. “But cases will go up in the winter,” Gupta says.
So, they are rising because we’re spending more time indoors, rather than because the lockdown was eased? “Well, the lockdown was eased some months ago, wasn’t it? We didn’t get ill and it wasn’t just because it was the summer, because people did get ill in Arizona and Mexico and places like that where it’s pretty damn hot.”
How long would her strategy take to work? “I’d like to think that by Christmas [the death rate] would be stable.”
Meaning? “We would have flu as our benchmark. We’d say, ‘What’s going on with flu?’ If it starts to edge above flu then we start to think a bit more carefully about what else we can do, but up to that point shielding the vulnerable as best we can is probably overall going to cause fewer deaths and less stress. That’s the message really.”
It is one for which she has been vilified. She has been written off as a “theoretician”, although she has been involved from the start in laboratory studies of the disease and in clinical trials. She has been accused of peddling pseudo-science. Her political persuasions have been assumed.
“I think it is just disgraceful that people should think it is acceptable to attack my motives, or — or to assign motives. Actually, they can’t find a motive. What would my motive be? But ad hominem attacks are really frightening.”
And they have upset her? “Of course. I am shocked. You’ve seen what’s out there. On Twitter we have been accused of lying. The Guardian printed a tweet that said our policy was grotesque. I guess that was at least attacking the policy, but there are people who specifically accuse us of lies. I don’t know what my motives would be. I am not seeking limelight or advancement. I have turned down several offers of head of college, mainly because I don’t want to do fundraising.”
It is time to discuss, as we say, “the optics” of the Great Barrington Declaration, its name taken from the small Massachusetts town where Gupta and her fellow rebels met. They were guests of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), a think tank promoting less government and open markets. Need I be worried about her politics?
“Personally, I am far to the left of Keir Starmer. OK? And please do print that. I believe in universal basic income. I believe in nationalisation of fundamental services. I am very, very strongly in favour of government intervention in public services and in spending.”
Of the trio, Harvard’s Martin Kulldorff is also “essentially a left-wing person”. They have “some divergence of political opinion perhaps” with the third member, Stanford’s Jay Bhattacharya. The AIER, which Gupta calls free-market rather than libertarian — she shudders when I ask if she is a libertarian — merely sheltered them.
But she drank its champagne? “I drink a lot of people’s champagne.”
They then flew to Washington to meet President Trump’s Covid-adviser Scott Atlas, who was criticised last month by 78 of his former colleagues at Stanford’s medical school for his “falsehoods and misrepresentations of science”.
“What we’re trying to say here is that we have, we think, a solution to this problem,” Gupta says. “We’re going to have to collaborate.”
Gupta is a distinguished academic, the winner of the 2009 Royal Society Rosalind Franklin award for outstanding women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and also a writer, whose five novels, she says, are about the “human condition, which is another thing we’re completely neglecting”.
More than once in our conversation, and with some passion, she brings up the poor of India, the country where she grew up, the daughter of a university professor and his teacher wife. She arrived in Britain in 1987 via Princeton University. In 1994 she married Adrian Hill, a vaccinologist who is now director of the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute. They have two daughters, the younger of whom completed her degree during lockdown in their home.
The inconvenience caused to the family, she knows, is nothing next to the cancer diagnoses and treatments that were lost, nor to the more than 100 million facing food insecurity as a result of Covid-19 policy decisions. (The World Bank estimates that as many as 150 million more people could be pushed into extreme poverty by next year.)
“Childhood vaccinations programmes were suspended. A million kids used to die from measles every year until fairly recently, when it’s come down to a quarter of a million. If next year a million children die from measles again, we will have ourselves to blame,” Gupta says.
This is not the first time Gupta has made news. In 2000 the chairman of an appointments committee scurrilously claimed that she had won support for a readership post at Oxford University by sleeping with her head of department. It took eight months for Roy Anderson to retract and apologise for an allegation with “no foundation in truth whatsoever”. Anderson, who was found to have intimidated the appointments committee, resigned from the Wellcome Trust and Oxford.
“He resigned from Oxford University for a variety of reasons, one of which was his defamation of me,” Gupta says. “I was very fortunate I had so much support from my colleagues and everything worked out. It could have been a disaster. But he was immediately appointed to Imperial [College London]. He then became the chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence. He was then knighted.”
In terms of giving government advice, I wonder why she is not on Sage herself, providing at the very least a critique of received Covid opinion.
“Why am I not on Sage?” She thinks for a second. “I have in my life generally avoided those sorts of positions. I think I have learnt that I am better able to contribute by doing basic science. But this is an unusual case where I think policy decisions are causing 130 million people to starve to death. I can’t just sit here and bury my head in the science.”