John Ioannidis is at it again. He’s got an article that is making the rounds in scientific circles which claims that the actual mortality rate for Covid-19 is far lower than thought – closer to between 1% and .05%, which is considerably lower than seasonal flu. “If that is the true rate, locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational,” Ioannidis writes. “It’s
like an elephant being attacked by a house cat. Frustrated and trying to avoid the cat, the elephant accidentally jumps off a cliff and dies.”
It’s not like Ioannidis is some far right ideologue or crackpot conspiracy theorist. On the contrary, he’s a highly respected medical researcher and statistician who wrote a highly respected paper criticizing the sloppy methods of most medical research. Google scholar lists hundreds of thousands of citings of papers by him by other medical scientists, and the paper that published his article – statnews – is also well respected.
No, the problem is deeper than that, and it shows how and why workers have to be a lot more serious about following scientific research.
Percentages vs. Absolute numbers
Take in Ionnidis’s case. Even if he’s right, that the mortality rate is as low as five deaths in ten thousand (.05%) – so what? Is Ioannidis claiming that a disaster is not in the works? How does he explain the New York City hospitals full to bursting and total deaths due to Covid-19 now at over 55,000? Maybe that doesn’t prove anything. Maybe most of those were people who really died of other causes. Really? Then how explain the massive spike in total deaths from all causes in New York city? The NY Times reports that over the 31 days ending April 4, the total number of deaths doubled. And this underestimates the Covid-19 caused deaths, because the number who would have died from traffic accidents, for example, was far lower. It also does not include thousands who died in their homes and haven’t been added to the count as of the writing of that article.
A microscope is a wonderful tool, but like a hammer, it can be used for some things but not others. The good Dr. Ioannidis is so busy peering into his figurative microscope inside his office/lab that he hasn’t bothered to look out his window.
“Reductionism” and scientific method
The problem lies in the method of complete reliance on “reductionism”. In biology, this means reducing any function to the most simple and single cellular process. Yes, it is impossible to understand what is happening in the body without understanding how things affect the individual cells. However, if we just look at that alone, then we cannot understand the general process. We cannot see the forest for the trees, as they say.
This leads to the question of the scientific method in general. And we repeat: The working class cannot afford to ignore these issues any longer. The survival of our species depends on it.
Scientific researchers tend to be cautious in drawing conclusions. Conservative, even. That is a good thing, up to a point, since, as Trump has proven over and over, it’s too easy to rush to conclusions which are mistaken not to speak of disastrous. But taken too far, it can be equally disastrous as Ioannidis shows.
“Double blind” studies not always applicable
Most scientists focus on whether one event or factor causes a particular outcome – for example if a particular pathogen (germ) causes a particular disease. Their gold standard is the “double blind” experiment or study in which all other factors are ruled out. To be considered to be proven, then other researchers in other labs have to arrive at the same results using the same test. Ioaniddis’s earlier paper sharply criticized other research for failing to do exactly that. But in this case, he “reduces” the issue to one question and one alone: The mortality rate of Covid-19, that is, the percentage of infected people who die from it. In the course of this, Ioannidis ignores a vital question: How many people in total died.
In the real world, though, the problem is that it’s impossible to use this double-blind method all the time. When looking at the effects of some pesticide in an environment, it’s impossible to isolate that one factor – the use of that one pesticide for example – and doubly impossible to repeat it under the exact same conditions. How can one know if there are other factors – maybe unusually heavy rain, or the opposite – drought – or a difference in temperature that affected the result? And how can the survey be repeated even in the exact same location, since time changes everything?
The great zoologist Theo Colborn explained in her groundbreaking book, Our Stolen Future: “There is little chance of showing a simple cause-and-effect link between any one or selected groups of hormone-disrupting synthetic chemicals.” She proposes the approach of “eco-epidemiology”, meaning how the spread of a disease (epidemiology) relates to the overall environment. She writes: “In this approach, one assesses the totality of the information in the light of epidemiological criteria for causality, such as whether the exposure precedes the effect, whether there is a consistent association between a contaminant and damage, and whether the association is plausible in light of the current understanding of biological mechanisms. But this real-world environmental detective work comes to judgment based on the ‘weight of the evidence’ rather than on scientific ideals of proof that are more appropriate to controlled laboratory experiments… As some have noted, it is akin to the decision-making process a physician uses to diagnose a case of appendicitis – where failure to act has grave consequences.” (Oaklandsocialist reviewed Colborn’s book here. Colborn was criticized in Junkscience.com in a very general way, without taking on any of her specific allegations. Their criticisms, themselves, were a perfect example of “junk science”!)
In general, what Colborn showed was that the effects of all sorts of different synthetic chemicals can be passed on to the as-yet unborn future generations. She has some fascinating explanations and descriptions of how the endocrine system functions and the importance of that system both in determining the development of a fetus and in the health – both mental and physical – of a person in the course of their lifetime. She also explains how the two – mental and physical – are inextricably interlinked. Along the way, Colborn shows how the endocrine system, which produces the different hormones, is at least as important as genes in determining the proper development of a fetus.
Genetics vs. endocrine system
Unfortunately, the great majority of related research seems to be in the field of genetic research as opposed to the functioning of the endocrine system. Part of the reason could be that genetic research is much simpler and lends itself much more to double blind studies. What genes a person has upon conception they have for their entire lifetime. Either a person has a particular gene or they don’t. Either a particular gene or group of genes is statistically associated with a particular disease or it isn’t.
The endocrine system is much more complex. It’s constantly changing, constantly flowing. Not only from month to month, but from second to second. It is both a cause and an effect at the same time. But it is the endocrine system – and the hormones it produces – that allow the different parts of the body to communicate and coordinate with each other. As Colborn puts it, “Without this cross talk and constant feed back [through the hormones produced by the endocrine system], the human body would be an unruly mob of some 50 trillion cells rather than an integrated organism operating from a single script.”
Not only is the endocrine system in constant flux, it is also directly affected by the environment around the person. And there’s the rub. There’s where the major economic interests enter the picture and another reason why so many scientists shy away from seriously investigating health from that point of view. “It’s the economy, stupid,” Bill Clinton used to remind himself daily when he first ran for president.
Theo Colborn died in 2014, before Covid-19 hit the news. (She is missed to this day.) Settled in Colorado, towards the end of her life her major role was in documenting and explain the enormous damage done to our health by fracking. But if she were alive today, it would be very interesting to see her take on this pandemic, and in particular on why different people respond so very differently to the virus.
Today, for the underlying causes of this pandemic, there are few sources better than radical evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace. The best single source of his writings is the collection of his articles published in his 2016 book Big Farms Make Big Flu.
Wallace is more overtly political than was Colborn when she first published her book 24 years ago, and he makes the economic interests of major sectors of the capitalist class clear. This includes agribusiness and the chemical industry. Now, the capitalist press, including the Washington Post is starting to make the link between factory farms and these new zoonotic diseases (diseases that are transmitted from another species to humans). The same for habitat loss*. (For a more in depth explanation, see Coronavirus, capitalism and the forces of nature in oaklandsocialist. The alternative to factory farming is regenerative farming, which works with rather than violates nature.) Wallace has not only been warning about this for over a decade, he’s been spelling out the economic interests involved. And, as we will see, the fact that he’s overtly political doesn’t make him a poor scientist (except maybe in the sense of his own bank account). On the contrary, the other scientists are also political; it’s just that they keep their politics hidden, which is all the more dangerous.
In his article on “Nafta Flu”, for example, Wallace demonstrates how the H1N1 virus immigrated from pigs on factory farms in Mexico to humans. The resulting flu was known as the Swine Flu until the hog industry stepped in. That name was detrimental to their profits, you see. Wallace, however, provides a more correct name: “Nafta Flu”. That’s because, as he demonstrates, it was Nafta that helped create the economic conditions through which the huge factory pig farms (many of them run by Smithfield Farms) replaced the small pig farmers in Mexico. (The only addition that should be made to what Wallace writes is that it was not Nafta alone; Nafta just consolidated a process that was already under way and would have continued without that treaty.)
Global capitalism in Africa
Elsewhere in the book, Wallace documents how global capitalism invaded Africa, leading to massive habitat destruction. This led to the increased interaction between bats (which are carriers of an unusually high number of viruses) and humans, which in turn led to the Ebola outbreaks.
World’s “big three” health organizations and commercial interests
But he goes even further. For example, he writes about a scientific conference in Verona, Italy, organized by the “big three” world health agencies: the World Health Organization, the Organization for Animal Health, and Food and Agricultural Organization. The focus of the conference was on influenza. Wallace explains what few, if any, of the other scientists mention: For example, he cites Kansas State University professor Juergen Richt, who brags about the $8 million dollars his institute has amassed and the millions more it expects to rake in. Wallace discusses the role of one apparently prominent scientist at the conference, Albert Osterhaus of One Health. Osterhaus felt obligated to disclose his investments in a series of pharmaceutical companies.
That doesn’t stop Osterhaus from offering One Health as a “partner” with various corporations. “We work closely with our [corporate] partners to tailor lasting partnerships that deliver the best results,” One Health’s statement reads. The question is: “The best results for whom?” As Wallace shows, this conference is no exception. For example, Cargill and Gold’n Plump poultry company co-sponsored a “scientific” conference in Minnesota in 2014. And then we have the example of Colgate-Palmolive, which markets palm oil, a product which frequently is produced through massive habitat loss. (Again, we should stress that this is not an abstract moral question; habitat loss is a direct cause of the Covid-19 pandemic.) And Colgate-Palmolive is one of the partners with… One Health Alliance, which praises Colgate for its “sustainable practices, …forward thinking, …and socially responsible” approach. Can you say “greenwashing”?
This has a direct consequence on scientific inquiry, which all too often focuses on detecting a virus that has already jumped the species barrier. Wallace explains that that’s like closing the barn door after the horses have escaped. Instead, it’s necessary to focus on “the landscape” that encourages the evolution of such viruses.
Wallace names names
Wallace goes even further. Yes, some other scientists do describe the relationship between habitat destruction and the emergence of viruses like Ebola. But there is one key factor they leave out: Who was the driving force in habitat destruction? In Guinea, there were “ninety deals by which U.S.-backed multinationals have procured hundreds of thousands of hectares for export crops, biofuels, and mining around the world…” The European Investment Bank was similarly involved. Wallace quotes a scientist from One Health: “We are going to talk to people who live within these [Ebola] zones and saying, ‘what you are doing is potentially a risk.’” They are not telling the European Investment Bank or the US-backed multinationals that what they are doing is destructive! No, that might endanger the funding sources for the likes of One Health. And as for the government agencies, the political pull of the corporations will ensure that that doesn’t get mentioned by them eithre. Instead, by ignoring these dynamics, these “kindly” researchers end up in effect blaming the African small farmers themselves. As Wallace puts it (p. 303), this is “a technicism that acts as an ideology in absentia” – in other words, by its silence it makes a political statement. Scientific research cannot escape politics. It will either name the names of the culprits or implicitly blame the victims.
Like Colborn, Wallace brings a “new way of thinking” about science
To return to our original point about scientific method: Wallace writes (pp. 83-4): “New ways of thinking about basic biology, evolution, and scientific practice are in order…. Some pathogens evolve into population states about which we cannot or, worse, refuse to think. None of the broader factors shaping influenza evolution and drug response can be found underneath the microscope [nor in a pristine lab, we would add], no matter how many more automated microplates can now be loaded or how much industrial computing power becomes available. A geography connecting relationships among living organisms and human production across scale and domain may help us make the mental transitions necessary…. It may be only then that we can better control a pathogen seemingly capable… of a chilling premeditation.”
Next pandemic: How many hundreds of millions?
To return to Ioannidis and the mortality rate of Covid 19: Regardless of whether the rate is .05% or 5%, the number of deaths is high… but nowhere as high as it could be. Nipah virus, for example, has a mortality rate of between 40% to 75%. As Wallace puts it: “Hendra, Ebola, Malaria, Sars, SCR-TB, Q fever, simian foamy firus, Nipah and influenza. One of these bugs or an as yet undiscovered cousin, will likely kill a few hundred million of us someday soon…. It isn’t if… it’s when…” In fact, it could be far worse, considering the mortality rate of Nipah. That’s why we, the working class, cannot afford to leave matters in the hands of the capitalists.
Humans lived by hunting and gathering for the overwhelming majority of their history. During that era they were reminded every second of their lives of the laws of nature. They never lost their awareness of that world. With industrialization and the urbanization of society, the illusion developed that we live apart from nature. What’s more, the oppressed class – the working class – had it pounded into their thinking that science – the study of the natural world – was the province of academics and that it wasn’t any of our business. Academia was properly more or less under the control of the ruling class. Except in the most general way, it was not the business of the working class to really understand science. Now, we see the rising disasters as the laws of nature threaten to overwhelm human society. No longer can we afford to ignore the discussions and debates among the scientists. Scientists like Theo Colborn and Rob Wallace can serve as a light to help us understand the nature of the crisis that we confront and, most important, what we as the working class can do about it.
* – Note: In the case of Covid 19, it seems that the virus spread from a wild bat to humans through the “wet market”, not a factory farm. These markets reproduce the conditions in which meat animals are produced to the form in which the meat is distributed. In most other new zoonotic diseases, it has been from wild animals to domesticated animals on factory farms to humans.