Partha Chakraborty Op-Ed: Truth, Reconciliation, and, COVID-19

Partha Chakraborty

Partha Chakraborty-

(Partha Chakraborty, Ph.D., CFA, is an economist, a statistician, and a financial analyst by training. Currently, he is an entrepreneur in water technologies, blockchain and wealth management in the US and in India. Dr. Chakraborty lives in Southern California with his wife and teenage son. All opinions are of the author alone)

Let us start with a rewind. December 12, 2019. Patients in Wuhan reported symptoms of an atypical pneumonia-like illness, unresponsive to known treatments.

On Jan 1, 2020, Hunan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan was closed, and on Jan 11 the disease claimed its first human victim. On Jan 13 Thailand confirmed the first COVID case outside of China, followed by Japan on Jan 15. US reported its first case on Jan 20, and the first non-travel related (person-to-person) case on Jan 30.

Wuhan city was put under lock-down on Jan 23 and the entire Hubei province two days later. On February 25, 2020 – four years ago – CDC warned that mitigation efforts may include school closings, workplace shutdowns, and the canceling of large gatherings and public events, stating that the “disruption to everyday life may be severe.”

Four years, almost seven million lives (per official count, globally), and trillions of dollars of losses and opportunity costs later, it is time to acknowledge that there is not much about the disease for certain.

As we speak, death count is at 1.125 million (1,125,420 to be exact) in the US, almost 700,000 in Brazil, over 530,000 in India, almost 400,000 in Russia, and, just shy of 220,000 in the UK.

In the US, COVID-19 alone has caused more deaths to date than all causes combined in 2019. That begs the question – Are Americans dying from COVID or dying with COVID?

Leana Wen, former President of Planned Parenthood and former Health Commissioner for the City of Baltimore, is a skeptic. She decried allegations of overcounting of COVID deaths as conspiracy theory early in the pandemic.

However, on 13, 2023 she wrote an Op-ed in the Washington Post, wondering if the current COVID death run-rate in the US – almost 150,000 deaths a year, making it the fifth highest cause of death going into the fourth year – might have anything-but-COVID as the primary cause for 70% of those reported. In other words, we are overcounting by almost 233% (30 real deaths per 100 reported), Wen contends.

Wen is not alone. Rob Dretler, attending physician at Emory Decatur Hospital and the former President of Georgia Chapter of Infectious Diseases Society of America, estimates 90 percent of people in the hospital diagnosed with COVID are in-patient because of something else other than COVID. “Since every hospitalized patient gets tested for COVID, many are incidentally positive.”

Shira Doron, an infectious disease specialist working for Tufts Medical Center summarizes her observations as showing that in recent months “proportion of those hospitalized because of COVID were as low as 10 percent of the total number reported” in official statistics. There is a grey area where COVID may not have been the primary cause of death, but contributed to it – Doron’s analyses there is still a work in progress.

How the disease started is another myth, and subject of many many speculations. The mainstream theory is that the virus jumped from animal to human in a Wuhan wet market.

The Wall Street Journal reported this Sunday that the US Department of Energy (DOE) concluded that the most likely cause of the virus is a leak at Wuhan Institute of Virology, a Chinese research lab, joining FBI who holds the same view.

DoE considers its finding to be “low confidence”; the national intelligence panel and four other intelligence agencies still consider “natural transmission” to be the likely cause, two other agencies are undecided.

WHO conducted a preliminary probe in 2021, but dropped the second phase after China refused cooperation – a prima facie evidence that the Communist country fears what an independent inquiry might bring up. Other than high confidence that the virus started in Wuhan sometimes late 2019, nothing can be a sure shot.

Talking about lab-leaks attracted heaps of scorn, and, labels of being “racist conspiracy theorist” in the early days. Even sitting US Senator Tom Cotton was not spared.

As I have commented repeatedly on these pages, WHO let China out easily, even before COVID, ostensibly to ensure its cooperation to WHO probes, but more likely because China is a major financial contributor. US National Institutes of Health provided financial aid to the Wuhan institute, including for gain-of-function research as we later found out. Accountability for the pandemic of our lifetime might snare us all, it seems.

What could be a proper response to COVID is the subject of many theories, many of them are legitimate alternatives. However, we have had a government-corporate-polite society nexus work in tandem to shut them up, effectively, or at least shun them aside.

For much of the pandemic, even now, natural immunity is derided as the conspiracy to kill millions for the benefit of a few able bodied. That’s simply not true.

CDC itself published data in January 2022 that showed “natural immunity was2.8 times as effective in preventing hospitalization and 3.3 to 4.7 times as effective in preventing Covid infection compared with vaccination,” reports Dr. Marty Markary, a Professor at Johns Hopkins.

“In other words, vaccinating people who had already had Covid didn’t significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization.” The effect was long lasting, “among 295 unvaccinated people who previously had Covid, antibodies were present in 99% of them up to nearly two years after infection.”

For comparison, the effectiveness of the two-dose Moderna vaccine against infection (not severe disease) declines to 61% against Delta and 16% against Omicron at six months, according to a recent Kaiser Southern California study.

The CDC data confirmed what more than 100 other studies already found, the largest one being in Israel. The Israel study found that natural immunity was 27 times as effective as vaccinated immunity in preventing symptomatic illness.

Findings like these mirror those found in other coronaviruses that cause severe illness, like SARS and MERS. Many clinicians observed that we don’t see reinfected patients end up on a ventilator or die from Covid, with rare exceptions who almost always have immune disorders.

In other words, natural immunity works, and works well.
Despite this, and contradicting CDC’s own data, Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director, signed John Snow memorandum declaring that “there is no evidence for lasting protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2 following natural infection.”

Similar egregious disregard for evidence-based decision making marked another hot-button issue – use of face-masks. In January 2023, Cochrane, a British organization dedicated to evidence-based decision making in the medical field, published the most-comprehensive-ever analysis of scientific studies on efficacy of masks.

Tom Jefferson, the lead-author and an Oxford epidemiologist, summarized the findings in unambiguous terms. “There is just no evidence that they” — masks — “make any difference,” he told the journalist Maryanne Demasi. “Full stop.” Even N95 masks make “no difference – none of it.”

Talking about previous studies that found positive evidence of significance, he is just as quick – “They were convinced by non-randomized studies, flawed observational studies.” To be noted that Cochrane’s conclusions were based on “78 randomized controlled trials”, with “a total of 610,872 participants in multiple countries.”

Prof. Jefferson reminds that the analysis “does not prove that proper masks, properly worn, had no benefit at an individual level.” People may have personal reasons to wear masks, and, their choices are their own.

These are not academic peccadillos. Failure to adhere to mask and vaccine mandates have ruined lives and careers of ordinary Americans and had immense economic costs that were felt millions more. Truck drivers and supply-chain professionals were forced out, at least temporarily, contributing to bottlenecks that raised the specter of inflation; effect lingers till now. In the early days of vaccine rollout, meager supply could be given to those who really needed, not requiring shots for those who already had natural immunity.

This failure hurt rural US hospitals the hardest, leading to full-blown staffing crisis and seriously overworked nurses (among others) which had snow-ball effect on their lives.

Forced closures of schools and colleges are another example – it deprived the poorest a chance to play in tandem with their peers at private schools while there has no evidence, ever, that school closings positively affected overall pandemic data in any community. Skeptics of mask and vaccine mandates were termed as “mis-informers” at best – more often as crooks and sometimes as baby/grandma killers.

All of government machinery, most of media and all of big tech monopoly were utilized to snub, shun or shut out any voice who questioned the big brother attitude.

In a previous Op-ed I opined that mandates reflect a failure to communicate on part of the powers that be. I was being nice, maybe even naïve, but not wrong.

I am certain that we will see another devastating pandemic in our lifetime. In a bi-polar world that we are certain to see in a few years, we need be ready to act, mostly on our own.

In that happenstance, we will need a radical transparency on where we could have done better, especially where we deviated from evidence-based decision making and what that cost us.

The best way to do that, as I see it, is a bi-partisan “Truth & Reconciliation Commission” on COVVID-19. We have the benefit of hindsight, updated data, and, hopefully, a level-headed urgency.

Now is as good time as any to reengineer the infrastructure that will make our response of tomorrow the one we could’ve, and should’ve, had yesterday.

Truth. Reconciliation. COVID-19. It is time we learn to enunciate the three together. Try it!

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