Nobelists: scientists ‘circled the wagons’ over coronavirus threat

Prizewinners argue that researchers have ‘stuck to a line’ about the pandemic’s danger in order to get politicians to listen – risking open debate

July 2, 2020
Michael Levitt
Source: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings
Michael Levitt speaks at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Scientists have “circled the wagons” during the coronavirus pandemic, Nobel laureates have argued, and been afraid to have a truly open debate about whether the virus is as deadly as feared and if lockdowns are justified.

Michael Levitt, a winner of the chemistry prize in 2013 and, since February, an outspoken contrarian voice on the pandemic, said he had received only “abuse” from fellow scientists for questioning predictions of catastrophic death tolls.

Using statistical analysis across different countries with varying degrees of lockdown, Professor Levitt has repeatedly and publicly argued that the virus slows far earlier than would be expected if everyone was susceptible, possibly indicating some kind of prior immunity.

Just 15 per cent of the population needs to be infected to reach herd immunity, he believes.

“The data had very clear things to say,” he told the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, an annual gathering of prizewinning academics and young researchers, itself moved online due to coronavirus.

But when sharing his results, “nobody said to me, ‘let me check your numbers’. They all just said, ‘stop talking like that’,” he said.

At the beginning of the crisis, scientists failed to collectively ask basic questions like “does this thing grow exponentially”, said Professor Levitt, Robert W. and Vivian K. Cahill professor in cancer research at Stanford University.

Physicists and theoretical chemists “who understand trajectories” were often better qualified to analyse the pandemic than epidemiologists, who “see their job not as getting things correct, but preventing an epidemic”, leading them to overstate the threat, he argued in a debate on the role of science in a crisis.

“We should never have listened to the epidemiologists,” Professor Levitt said. “They have caused hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of suffering and damage, mainly on the younger generation,” he said. “It’s going to make 9/11 look like a baby story.”

Instead of “one or two” voices dominating the debate, scientific institutions like the Royal Society should have formed a committee back in February to convene a range of experts, Professor Levitt argued.

“Instead, we let economics and politics [dictate] the science,” he said. “For me, the worst opposition I got was from very, very prominent scientists, who were so scared that the non-scientists would break quarantine and infect them.”

Many experts have pushed back against Professor Levitt’s arguments. As yet, there is no proof of widespread immunity to Covid-19, and the spread has slowed in many countries following lockdowns.

Still, Professor Levitt was not the only laureate to worry that scientists had hidden uncertainty during the pandemic. Saul Perlmutter, a physics prizewinner in 2011, said when scientists felt “under attack” because the “democratic system” fails to heed them, there was a “tendency to circle the wagons and hide all the conversations that need to happen”.

Scientists get “scared” about whether politicians will respond to them – and so take a “frozen moment of science” and “stick to that line until somebody hears it in the political world”, said Professor Perlmutter, Franklin W. and Karen Weber Dabby of physics at the University of California, Berkeley.

But Peter Doherty, an immunology expert who won the medicine prize in 1996, defended other aspects of the scientific response to coronavirus, arguing that in the hunt for treatments and a vaccine, researchers had worked with “extraordinary speed, and with extraordinary cooperation”.

“I think science comes out of it very well in fact, and I think that’s the general perception,” said Professor Doherty, laureate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Melbourne.

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