By Ian Wishart
What’s the truth about Covid19? That depends who you are listening to. The debate about the pandemic spreading across the world from Wuhan, China, has become highly politicised – toxically so.
To help cut through the noise, I’ve assembled this independent fact check on Covid19. My background is a four decades career as an investigative journalist and bestselling author (see bio here) of political book Totalitaria and health books Vitamin D and Show Me The Money Honey: The Truth About Big Pharma… For the benefit of many who may not like the below, I would add I’m a conservative, and an evangelical.
I’ve been following this story since news first broke in the first week of January. Here’s what I’ve found are the biggest points of misinformation and confusion:
(SEE ALSO: How big could Covid19’s second wave be? )
COVID19: Are death certificates being faked? STATUS: Untrue
This claim emerged late March as Italy was exploding and New York was starting to boil. Social media messages quickly spread to the effect that doctors had been instructed to label all deaths as covid19 where possible, and that this was a major departure from normal practice that was causing covid19 deaths to be overstated. In some cases, controversial medical figures lent their weight to the claims in online videos and commentaries.
Scott Jensen, a Minnesota doctor and politician, gave an interview to Fox News boosting the profile of the theory.
Variations have since spread, including this purportedly from a ‘nurse’ in the UK:
“Hospitals around the world have a standard process for how deaths are categorised on their paperwork. To be listed as the flu being the cause of death it must be clear that flu was the primary cause of the person’s death. That is normal hospital process. However, for whatever reason, hospitals around the world have been instructed to deviate from that process with regards COVID-19. Anyone dying from any kind of respiratory issue or any kind of flu like symptoms are required to be categorised as dying from COVID-19, even if they have not even been tested for COVID-19. So, if you had a pre-existing respiratory issue and then died of normal complications of this, you are listed as having died of COVID-19 even if you haven’t even been tested for COVID-19. Here we have the Sir Patrick Vallance, UK Chief Scientific Adviser confirming this fact, as did Dr Deborah Birx who is leading on COVID-19 medical advice for the United States. This is medical fraud. It is as simple as that.”
My analysis: first published on Facebook
There’s a massive #fakenews theme, endorsed by some disgruntled medics, that covid19 deaths are being wrongly recorded on death certificates when other health problems – like cancer for example – were the main cause of death. If you are getting repeatedly hit with this in your news feed, feel free to share this post.
There is nothing sinister or exaggerated in the way covid19 is listed on death certificates if positively tested or clinically suspected. Here’s why:
The deaths are registered on the same basis as flu.. and for the same reasons. Epidemiologists need comprehensive death data to look for trends… and research scientists studying the data of this pandemic in the months and years to come will look at the big picture the data paints. How many people with covid19 also died with a stroke, for example – the national average or double the expected average? Were people with cancer more likely to die in the covid19 pandemic than normal? How many people who died of heart attacks turned out to have covid19 as well, more than average or less? Why the difference? How many people who died suddenly in car crashes also had covid19? More than normal? Is there a link?
The death certificate will ask doctors to list what they regard as the primary cause of death, and the underlying cause of death, and all relevant comorbidities.
If the death certificate doesn’t collect all relevant info then science can’t find the answers. Those answers guide medics who are all poring over the studies as rapidly as they come out. The connections they find in these massive data collection operations will help ER doctors treat people like you or your family more effectively in future.
Last year around 34,000 Americans died of flu. Only a fraction of those were hospitalised. Fewer again of those were formally tested. Yet scientists “estimate” from those numbers that around 60 million Americans caught the flu, because they can work backwards from the known fatality rate. The vast majority of deaths eventually attributed to flu are NEVER formally tested. A far higher ratio of covid19 deaths are tested.
The April 2020 death certificate guidelines issued by the CDC explain the circumstances in which an untested covid19 death can be certified:
“In cases where a definite diagnosis of COVID–19 cannot be made, but it is suspected or likely (e.g., the circumstances are compelling within a reasonable degree of certainty), it is acceptable to report COVID–19 on a death certificate as “probable” or “presumed.” In these instances, certifiers should use their best clinical judgement in determining if a COVID–19 infection was likely. However, please note that testing for COVID–19 should be conducted whenever possible.”
In New Zealand, where I’m based, it is a legal requirement to list any notifiable infectious disease on a death certificate, even if the person died in a car crash, both for government records and also so funeral homes can take appropriate precautions with the body. If you are at all interested and need proof, covid19 is indeed a notifiable disease. It’s not a conspiracy.
So if you hear the claims of over-reported deaths because of the way certificates are filled out, use your common sense, data collection is science in action.
COVID19: The flu jab may put you at greater risk from coronavirus. STATUS: True
Health agencies globally have been urging people to ensure vaccinations for influenza are up to date as the covid19 pandemic rolls out. Anti immunisation groups have been quick to suggest that could be a dumb idea. USA Today did a fact check ruling this claim was false.
A recently published study on nearly 10,000 US military personnel found the yearly flu vaccination can provide some “umbrella” protection against other circulating viruses. However unfortunately the reverse is true for coronavirus. The study found that getting the flu jab was associated with a 36% higher risk of suffering a coronavirus infection after vaccination:
“Examining non-influenza viruses specifically, the odds of both coronavirus and human metapneumovirus in vaccinated individuals were significantly higher when compared to unvaccinated individuals (OR = 1.36 and 1.51, respectively).”
Two points are important. This study was undertaken two years BEFORE covid19 emerged, so it is not specifically talking about SARS-COV2. But it was talking about the family of the other four common coronaviruses, so there’s no reason to assume the latest common member of that virus family would be different.
Secondly, this doesn’t mean that you “catch” coronavirus from the flu jab. The scientists say what is actually happening is a process known as “virus interference”, where the body’s immune system reaction to the flu jab interferes with its ability to fight off a coronavirus infection.
That raises the question about whether rushing to vaccinate the elderly and immune-compromised with the flu vaccine – in the knowledge of this particular study – was a bright move by health authorities.
COVID19: Hospitals are inflating case numbers because they get paid for treating covid patients. STATUS: False
The claim goes like this:
Yes, US hospitals get paid. The facts in the meme arise from legislation passed by Congress to ensure that low income Americans without medical insurance could get hospital treatment. In fact, because of bureaucratic red tape the payments vary so that hospitals in the hardest hit areas are getting less cash than that, while others which were low-demand areas when the package was passed – like Montana and Nebraska – get up to $300,000 per covid19 patient. That’s prompted people like Montana medic Annie Bucacek to gain a million Youtube views with her claim the figures are fake because of the financial incentives, as she posted on my Facebook page:
“Annie Bukacek Montana, Nebraska and Minnesota hospitals $300,000 allocation for COVD 19 admission. Potential conflict of interest?”
My analysis: This one is easy to debunk, simply on the public record data and a dose of common sense.
If ordinary US hospitals are being paid $13,000 to treat a corona patient, and Nebraska hospitals are being paid $300,000, then surely every available hospital bed in Nebraska will be filled with a homeless person dragged off the streets and labelled as a “covid19 patient”?
In Douglas County, Nebraska there are 325 covid19 cases (as at 23 April). Of those, local media report only 44 are in hospital:
“The health department says local hospitals reported 592 medical surge beds were available and 44 individuals were hospitalized with COVID-19.
“Additionally, of the 398 available ventilators, 106 were in use, including 15 for COVID-19 patients.”
In Bucacek’s native Montana, only 444 cases of covid19 had been recorded as of April 24. Only 59 of those were ever hospitalized.
So if America’s highest paid hospitals for covid19 treatment (getting $300K per patient in federal funding) are not faking the figures, why would anyone believe the wild rumours that hospitals getting paid only $13K would be doing so?
The second aspect is one of common sense. The USA has a case fatality ratio (confirmed cases/deaths) of about 5%. British and European hospitals are running well north of 10%, and they are taxpayer funded – they don’t get financial incentives to list covid cases or deaths and they are bursting at the seams.
If financial incentives were causing distorted covid classification, we would expect American hospitals everywhere to be leading the world in covid cases per capita as the hospitals used the crisis to print money, but they are not.
COVID19: It’s no worse than the flu. STATUS: False
You’ve all heard the claims.That’s why you are here. I don’t need to repeat anything in depth because the claim is the gist of it. A small number of academics like Dolores Cahill, Knut Wittkowski, Andy Kaufman etc use their white coats to lend authority to the claims in Youube videos, but the claims remain demonstrably false.
The Covid19 pandemic has been often compared to the 25,000 – 80,000 who die in the US any given year from flu. Everyone knows that’s our influenza toll, right?
Well it wasn’t always that way. Although many people get the flu each year – maybe 60 million in the US – only a fraction die from it. Last year in the US it was an estimated 34,000. Estimated? Yes. Most flu cases are never formally diagnosed, and the vast majority of deaths we think are flu are not positively tested. It’s an educated guess by the doctor certifying the death.
As Slate magazine reported back in 2009, only 1,800 Americans actually tested positive for influenza when they died. Slate was writing an article on how health statisticians do the math to turn 1,800 real tests into an estimate of 40,000.
On its flu pages, the Centers for Disease Control explains why it certifies deaths as flu without positive tests:
“Why doesn’t CDC base its seasonal flu mortality estimates only on death certificates that specifically list influenza?
“Seasonal influenza may lead to death from other causes, such as pneumonia, congestive heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It has been recognized for many years that influenza is underreported on death certificates. There may be several reasons for underreporting, including that patients aren’t always tested for seasonal influenza virus infection, particularly older adults who are at greatest risk of seasonal influenza complications and death.
“Even if a patient is tested for influenza, influenza virus infection may not be identified because the influenza virus is only detectable for a limited number of days after infection and many people don’t seek medical care in this interval. Additionally, some deaths – particularly among those 65 years and older – are associated with secondary complications of influenza (including bacterial pneumonias). For these and other reasons, modeling strategies are commonly used to estimate flu-associated deaths. Only counting deaths where influenza was recorded on a death certificate would be a gross underestimation of influenza’s true impact,” notes the CDC.
The health system knows if people start dying at increased rates. In bad flu seasons we get extra deaths – more cases of pneumonia, or the fitness freak with a bad cold who had a heart attack while jogging. Those extra deaths are called “excess mortality”. When a flu or any other epidemic sweeps through population, the excess deaths above average show up. Always.
Although it can take months or a year for full death stats to be finalised, the impact of the covid19 epidemic is so big, so out of the ordinary, that it is easily visible in raw, provisional weekly death data. This graph illustrates a reasonably big 2019/2020 UK flu season (week 52 was end of December last) against the monster rise of covid19 in week 12 of 2020…there is just no comparison:
You can read the USA raw data here…updated daily Monday to Friday. You can see covid19 has well and truly outstripped influenza as a bigger cause of death for anyone aged over 25.
You can read the British raw data here, on the Office of National Statistics website, updated weekly.
Unlike the flu, patients placed on ventilators are much more likely to die. But this virus is not just a respiratory illness. It’s like influenza, HIV, HCV and Ebola rolled into one. It shares immuno evasive techniques like HIV and HCV that indicate it can hide long term in the body, but it also attacks blood coagulation like Ebola, causing strokes, heart attacks and pulmonary embolisms in otherwise healthy young people. Doctors monitoring scan equipment say they could literally see clots forming in real time in their patients in front of their eyes, sometimes hundreds of clots.
Not only is this disease more infectious than flu, but it appears to target the brain, spine and central nervous system. Scientists are warning people who had mild cases that there may be much worse to come:
Those who recover from Covid19, even a mild case, could be hit down the track with a neurological condition like Parkinson’s.
Many Covid19 patients lose their sense of taste and smell – an unusual development but one shared with Parkinson’s sufferers. Many hospitals have reported cognitive issues, as news agency AFP noted four days ago:
“WASHINGTON (AFP) – A pattern is emerging among Covid-19 patients arriving at hospitals in New York: Beyond fever, cough and shortness of breath, some are deeply disoriented to the point of not knowing where they are or what year it is.”
It’s one of many clues, say neurological researchers, that Covid19’s silent ‘surprise’ is brain damage.
While millions of bored social media users in lockdown are looking enviously at Sweden, tweeting #herdimmunity and touting antibody tests, this may be the warning they don’t want to hear: be careful what you wish for – if you have the antibodies it means you probably have the virus, and here’s why that’s a problem.
“It is thought that SARS-CoV2 is a neurotropic virus,” reported the InterAmerican Journal of Medicine and Health this month, meaning it worms its way into your brain.
“The accumulative evidences suggest that Coronavirus is not only confined within the respiratory tract and that may also invade in central nervous system (CNS), peripheral nervous system (PNS) inducing some fatal Neurological diseases…” says another study.
“Some viruses possess a tropism for neural tissue and are thus classified as neurotropic (e.g., herpes simplex virus type 1, rabies virus),” reports another review in the Frontiers in Neurology journal last week …”Once in the brain, these viruses disrupt the complex organization of neural circuits either directly by neuronal damage or indirectly through host immune response pathways, causing immediate, or delayed neuropathology and neurological manifestations (6) (see below). In the short-term, neurotropic viral infections can cause inflammation of the brain parenchyma and lead to encephalitis or brain-targeted auto-immune responses in susceptible individuals (7). Possible long-term effects on hosts can include alterations on emotional and cognitive behavior, as shown in experimental animals.”
That study notes herpes and rabies, but there are others you may be familiar with. One is varicella zoster, the virus that causes chickenpox in children. That virus is not killed by our immune systems – it simply hides, only to re-emerge decades later as shingles.
Chillingly, the Frontiers in Neurology article draws the medical links between the theorised viral origins of Parkinson’s, then notes that Covid19 acts the same way, meaning that for younger people who have ‘recovered’ the nightmare may only just be beginning:
“Thus, recovery may be an ambiguous term regarding COVID-19. Though recovery from the acute phase of the infections is certainly a relief in public health terms, helping to stop the spreading of the infection, one must consider the long-term neurological effects of the disease.
“This discussion has been conspicuously lacking in pertinent forums and needs to be adequately addressed as an important concern by public health officials. Many authorities are focusing only on the risks posed to the elderly and immunocompromised subjects, downplaying the threats to younger populations.
“Though the neurological risks described in the present work are particularly important to the elderly, due to age-related degenerative processes in the immunologic system and the brain, the population needs to be alerted to the chronic neurological risks during the pandemic and maintain social distancing for as long as it is necessary.”
UPDATE 17 May 2020: the US death toll is now nearly 90,000 – well above a big flu season – and that’s in the space of just eight weeks. To achieve an 80,000 death toll the flu is estimated to infect 80 million Americans. In sharp contrast antibody testing indicates only between two million and 12 million Americans have been exposed to coronavirus, so as a comparision 80 million covid infections in the USA could generate between 630,000 and well into the millions of deaths.
Covid19 is not the flu.
Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
COVID19: But antibody testing has shown the real mortality rate is much lower, therefore we can let it keep spreading to achieve herd immunity. STATUS: Dangerously false
Stanford University did some antibody testing, as did the State of New York. New York’s was randomised. New York found 14% of the state had been exposed to the virus, or 2.7 million people. When transposed against the 13000 deaths at the time it gave a real mortality rate of 0.5%, far below the 10% to 20% case fatality ratios in Europe calculated by dividing positive medical cases by the death toll. The data shows 20% of residents of New York city have been exposed. This has been used as a justification to issue ‘immunity passports’ that would purportedly be able to allow people to travel or work.
UPDATE: 17 May 2020: Antibody testing with the newest most accurate kits, carried out by the governments of Spain and France, both badly hit by the pandemic, revealed that after first wave only 4.4% of the population had been exposed to coronavirus in those countries….meaning 95% were still vulnerable and total deaths could top half a million in each country on that extrapolation. The scientific consensus was that herd immunity could not be achieved without mass death and a health system crippled .
First let’s deal with the antibody testing. These tests are notoriously inaccurate and liable to throw up false positives – saying people have antibodies when in fact they don’t:
“If a serological test has 90% specificity, its positive predictive value will be 32.1% – meaning nearly 70% of positive results will be false. At this same disease prevalence, a test with 95% specificity will lead to a 50% false positive rate. Only at 99% specificity does the false positive rate become anywhere near acceptable, and even here 16% of positive results would still be wrong,” notes EvaluatePharma.
The tests on the market in the USA have specificity between 96 and 100%, but had not been independently verified by the FDA.
OK, with that caveat in place, what do antibody tests tell us? Optimists say it means immunity.The studies say there may not be any immunity.
Antibodies don’t mean you are immune. They mean you are a carrier.
The WHO is warning governments cannot rely on antibody testing for so-called “immunity passports” because there’s still no evidence that anyone who has had covid 19 is immune to reinfection.
What spooked them may be a just-released British review which warns that immunity may be as low as only 80 days – meaning people who have recovered from the first wave of the virus could be among those hit hard in the second wave whenever it comes.
“It is clear that most people infected with SARS-CoV-2 display an antibody response between 10 and 14 days after infection. In some mild cases, detection of antibodies requires a long time after symptoms, and in a small number of cases, antibodies are not detected at all, at least during the time scale of the reported studies.
“There is a paucity of information about the longevity of the antibody response to SARS-CoV-2, but it is known that antibodies to other human coronaviruses wane over time, and there are some reports of reinfection with homologous coronaviruses after as little as 80 days. Thus, reinfection of previously mild SARS-CoV-2 cases is a realistic possibility that should be considered in models of a second wave and the post pandemic era (Kissler et al., 2020).
“If immunity is not permanent many epidemiological scenarios lead to SARS-CoV-2 becoming a seasonal human coronavirus, with either annual, biennial or sporadic patterns of epidemics over the next five years.”
And if that’s the case, herd immunity won’t work.
But if that wasn’t bad enough, our immune reactions may in fact be part of the way this virus attacks. Emerging science says this virus uses our own antibodies to help kill us:
The science behind why vaccines can go horribly wrong (and why all the anti-vaxxers on FB are going nuclear over the possibility of a covid19 vaccine) is covered in a new scientific review on Covid19. What might annoy proponents of natural immunity however is that the antibodies we are making might actually be part of the weapon.
Some viruses (and there’s a suspicion in this report that SARS-Cov2 might be one of them) can use the antibodies our immune systems produce to actually escalate their attack on our bodies…a kind of viral judo.
The concept is known as Antibody-Dependent Enhancement (ADE) which, as the name suggests means that if your immune system doesn’t get a really strong grip on covid19 it can suddenly find itself held hostage and being used to help kill you.
This would explain the ‘cytokine storm’ immune reactions that rapidly kill patients.
“The pathogenesis of COVID-19 is currently believed to proceed via both directly cytotoxic and immune-mediated mechanisms . An additional mechanism facilitating viral cell entry and subsequent damage may involve the so-called antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE). ADE is a very well-known cascade of events whereby viruses may infect susceptible cells via interaction between virions complexed with antibodies or complement components and, respectively, Fc or complement receptors, leading to the amplification of their replication  (fig. 1). This phenomenon is of enormous relevance not only for the understanding of viral pathogenesis, but also for developing antiviral strategies, notably vaccines…”
This just published report in the Swiss medical journal SMW notes that ADE is one of the factors that caused vaccines developed for SARS to fail…animals vaccinated in trials died because the viral vaccine generated antibodies capable of being used as a Trojan horse by SARS when the animals were then exposed to the virus.
In tests on macaque monkeys, the vaccine caused the kind of accelerated cytokine storm lung damage that post-mortems found in human SARS deaths:
“Another troublesome FcγR-associated phenomenon observed in a macaque model of SARS is the skewing of the wound-healing response in lung-infiltrating macrophages towards a proinflammatory profile concomitant with the appearance of anti-spike IgG . The same authors reported similar observations in patients deceased of SARS. Thus, the interaction with Fc receptors of anti-SARS-CoV antibodies complexed with virions may lead to both an enhancement of viral cell entry and replication, and a clinically impactful modulation of the local cytokine response.”
Similar problems were found with Dengue fever – the vaccine began harming children when it was rolled out five years ago because it caused ADE.
“The most worrisome aspect of this phenomenon was observed during the Dengue vaccine development. Efficacy trials in Asia and Latin America led to the licensing of the first recombinant, live, attenuated, tetravalent Dengue vaccine in 2015 . Its safety became a focus of scrutiny when follow-up data were published. The rate of hospitalisation for Dengue in year 3 for children who were 9 years old or younger was higher in vaccine recipients than among controls, although the numbers were small . The likely explanation for these occurrences was that vaccination was mimicking a primary infection, and that waning of immunity may have exposed some children to the risk of ADE in the event of secondary infection.”
The coronavirus immunisation given to your pet cat can cause ADE:
“The feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIPV) is a highly virulent variant of feline coronavirus, an alphacoronavirus that is highly prevalent in both wild and domestic cats .
“Immunisation against FIPV paradoxically increases the disease severity.”
All of which, says the Swiss medical report, is reason to be very cautious if a covid19 vaccine is ever found, and also not to make assumptions that covid19 antibodies are necessarily your friend. This may be a virus where being exposed and developing antibodies may be setting you up for a big hit later.
“ADE may affect safety and efficacy of passive and active immunisation schedules. A recent work reported the development of neutralising antibodies in most patients recovered from mild COVID-19 : since patients with progression to a severe course were not studied, it was impossible to establish an association between this humoral response and disease.
“The authors cautioned that the variability of neutralising antibody development may raise a concern about their role on disease progression. Nonetheless, the use of convalescent plasma has been encouraged and reported recently in a prospective study of 10 patients with severe COVID-19 . In this uncontrolled trial, the administration of plasma containing high titres of SARS-CoV-2 neutralising antibodies was shown to be effective on several clinical, biochemical and radiological parameters, in parallel with a prompt viral suppression. Importantly, no severe adverse effects were observed.
“Wider implementation of this approach should however be conducted with caution. On the other hand, the need for rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine has been literally met with a worldwide race among dozens of research teams . However, it has been stressed that a hasty development of such vaccines may be risky , and that only rigorous research can lead to a safe and effective management of the current pandemic.”
New Chinese study sheds fresh light on immunity question…main points:
1. Virus thrives alongside antibodies for up to 36 days, “SARS-CoV-2 can coexist with its specific antibodies in the human body for an unexpectedly long time (34-36 days)”
2. The presence of antibodies did not appear to impact the disease: “We did not observe a correlation between early adaptive immune responses and better clinical outcomes”
3. The research team speculated that coronavirus may be able to hide in the body like HCV (HepC), but flagged this as an area for further study: “How this virus can circulate in the presence of specific antibodies for such a long time is an interesting question. Whether SARS-CoV-2 can act as HCV that have developed strategies to subvert humoral immunity and persists in the body is worth further investigation.”
4. One patient (out of only 26 studied, it was a small sample) did not generate any antibodies, leading researchers to conclude that innate immunity rather than antibodies may have finally tackled the virus (she finally tested negative for covid19 47 days after first symptoms): “innate immunity alone might be enough to clear the virus. This case may also indicate that some individuals may not generate specific antibodies after infection with SARS-CoV-2..”
5. From that one patient with an innate immune response the study authors pin a lot of hope: “This is the first report that innate immunity plays such an essential role in the host defense against SARS-CoV-2, which highlights the importance of innate immunity in SARS-CoV-2 clearance. Further studies are required to determine which factors or signaling pathways of innate immunity contribute to this process. Whether individuals with such responses are still at risk for reinfection needs further exploration.”
The study, as noted, was small and only included mild cases. No severe patients were studied. They did suggest investigating whether boosting the innate immune system could help stimulate the body’s fight against covid19, but also noted that stimulating innate immunity could increase the risk of a cytokine storm, which is common in fatal covid19 cases.