The Top Ten KeystoneCorona Moments of 2020: Part 10/10 – Limiting Scientific Advice

Our Western leadership has failed miserably at managing the risks of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Not one government in Europe or the Americas can claim a single success in protecting their populations not only from the pandemic but also from the consequences of their botched lockdown measures. The bumbling, stumbling farce that has become our government reactions could be likened to the Keystone Kops: falling all over themselves, frenetically failing and getting up to trip once again. For my 2020 year-end review, I am cataloguing many of the KeystoneCorona crises caused by the failure of our authorities to implement basic risk management tools. 
Part 10 of this series looks at how our regulators have limited their scientific advice scope to groups of like-minded scientists who have been assembled to tell the authorities what they want to hear and provide a consensus to justify their decisions. While the pantomime is played out during daily Coronavirus science panel live broadcasts, there is very little science going on here (and our regulators rarely seem to listen in any case). With narrow advice, is it any wonder our KeystoneCorona officials are falling all over themselves?

Who is advising our government officials on the actions that should be taken on the COVID-19 coronavirus? Are these officials listening to this advice or are they following what other countries are doing (like articulate-sounding lemmings)? Did European countries use their own data and evidence when going into lockdown in March 2020 or did they just follow their neighbours? How limited is the scientific advice in our policy processes? How selective (narrow) was this advice? Were these advisers in different countries communicating and coordinating with each other?

The Norwegian health officials, for example, admitted they had never advised the government to close the schools last March (and they even suspected children locked down at home may have increased the virus spread), but when other countries closed their schools, the Norwegian government followed suit. Ten months into the pandemic, we were still seeing government officials making decisions according to what other countries were doing – like Keystone Kops all piling into a room with no idea what was happening. We hear about these scientific panels meeting daily, but how was this advice managed?

This KeystoneCorona series started with the ridiculous British Christmas blockade. After weeks of doing nothing while the UK COVID-19 variant was spreading, one day the Dutch government announced a ban on flights from the UK (closing the stable door after the horse has bolted) and within 24 hours, 40 other countries piled in, isolating the British from the rest of the world overnight. Three months later, as I write my final KeystoneCorona chapter, we see an even more ridiculous case of poorly advised countries falling over each other. Someone has drawn a correlation between the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clotting without showing a causal link. Within several days, most European countries have fallen over each other suspending the use of the vaccine. This is despite the fact that the 17 million AstraZeneca vaccines so far administered and the several dozen cases of blood clotting are in line or below the number of clots occurring normally in the general population.

After probably the most farcical mismanagement of vaccine communications and a half-assed European vaccination rollout, no one will trust this vaccine now. Who is taking responsibility for yet another catastrophic regulatory risk management failure? This is the precautionary principle in action – there is no need for accountability or evidence. On the AstraZeneca suspension, the European Commissioner for Economy, Paolo Gentiloni, claimed “precautionary measures are justified” until further assessment from the European Medicines Agency can “give certainty to our EU citizens.” So we are demanding 100% certainty and safety now because two events coincided in a small number of cases. Some of these blood clots are deep vein thrombosis, commonly called “economy class syndrome” because they can occur after long flights … so … I suppose the precautionistas governing the European Union will now ban all air travel.

When will these Keystone clowns learn proper risk management, and in doing so, learn to diversify their advisory sources and scenario systems?

THE Science

Whenever I hear a politician or activist cite “THE science”, I feel sick to my stomach. From Biden to Greta, this fashion to claim to follow the science demonstrates the depth of hollow ignorance. It has spread into the mainstream media where any scientist is now dressed in a white coat and put forward to provide the needed scientific basis to say and do whatever we want. And if our scientists aren’t telling us what we want to hear, then we can always change the scientists.

It is foolish to think there is such a thing as “the science”; rather there are fields of sciences. These fields are cesspools of competing ideas, paradigms, baselines, varying data, methodologies and, of course, enormous egos. Attend a scientific conference where a controversial paper is presented; it is anything but civil (I often wonder why they don’t sell popcorn at these events). I got to see firsthand how chemists and toxicologists (who measure safety by exposure level, counting the dead rats and empirically determining an LD50) would be confronted by biologists favouring a hazard-based approach who feel that complex systems cannot be so easily determined. Different fields of science have different methodologies and different interests. When, for example, a statistician with friends in IARC decided glyphosate was a carcinogenic risk (while ignoring data and studies from those toxicologists who actually researched and tested the subject), shouldn’t we stop and think about the perspectives before we let the interest groups vote?

With COVID-19, there was a clear conflict between the virologists and epidemiologists. Virologists focused only on the virus and how to contain it without considering the larger consequences. If any epidemiologist put these decisions into real-world contexts (like the Great Barrington Declaration), the verbal attacks on their reputations were embarrassing and undignified. But whom do we listen to in our decisions? Who should guide our policy?

The mix of different scientific fields is already complicated enough with the variety of methodologies and paradigms; add to that any political influences that may further skew the bias and the use of scientific advice gets even more complicated. Data is data, but industry-funded data is often rejected by social-justice motivated scientists. It is getting more complicated to follow the influencers as science funding opportunities diversify (as in the revelations of the volume of funding US tort lawyers are paying scientists to produce “evidence” for the courts). I coined the term “activist scientist” to try to understand how some people put white coats on when they enter the lobbying process.

When someone says “Listen to the science” what I hear is that a group of politically-motivated people got together to claim a consensus and want the others to shut up and stop questioning them. That is not science, that is politics and anyone using such rhetoric is doing a disservice to how science should be understood. When you have private social clubs like Collegium Ramazzini, where your membership has to be vetted and approved, it does not take long to realise what a mockery these activists have made out of the scientific endeavour. Peer review now means limiting your peers to those who agree with your scientific approach. This is a political process and we need to admit that.

What any responsible leader should say is: “Having consulted a wide range of expertise and based on the information presently before me, this path of action is best, however...” This though goes against the political instinct of being decisive and resolute. Western leadership thinks the public expect clear actions and results and judge any change of course as weakness and error. So they hold to scientific opinions like they were ideological dogma and even if the data continues to stack up against them, these great leaders must never appear hesitant or uncertain. As many countries are heading into yet another lockdown, this seems to me like the makings for a typical Keystone Kops situation.

KeystoneCorona Scientific Panels

Policymakers regularly commit the fatal mistake of taking advice only from those people who will tell them what they want to hear. They want a clear consensus they can use (lean on) to justify an easy decision-making process. The BSE (mad cow) crisis in the UK is an excellent case study in the consequences of limiting your scientific advice and the lost trust such mistakes could entail. In the 1990s, the British authorities decided (wrongly) to consider only the advice against culling the herd (and the rest was history). Decades after, the British public still does not highly respect or trust government advisers (and UK beef consumption never recovered). The conclusion from that debacle is that scientific advisory groups need to have a diversity of scientific fields to provide comprehensive data and scenarios to allow for informed risk management decisions.

So why then, when the COVID-19 coronavirus was reaching crisis levels more than a year ago, did most governments only assemble advisory panels containing healthcare professionals, virologists and statisticians? This was tragically reactive – the governments seemed to only be concerned with avoiding hospitals being overwhelmed (remember “flatten the curve”? … a phrase only a scary statistician could have come up with). The UK SAGE panel was composed of mostly statisticians and mathematicians (seven in total) but no immunologists. No wonder their models scared the UK Prime Minister. Even nine months into the pandemic in the US, the incoming Biden COVID-19 taskforce contained only healthcare officials.

The makeup of such panels guaranteed that advice would be imbalanced toward lockdowns without considerations of the consequences on societies or alternative risk management strategies. Why were there no mental health experts in the room warning about the psychological tolls lockdowns would impose? There were no logistics experts on these panels to raise problems for the supply chains (remember all of the agricultural products that were dumped in the early days of the lockdown). No economists, epidemiologists or geriatricians … their views on coronavirus policy decisions didn’t matter it seemed.

With only advice from one field of the scientific community, the Western COVID-19 policy responses were tragically misguided and our KeystoneCorona leadership looked ridiculous. And what does the public now think of our government performance based on this limited “scientific advice”? If we go back to the BSE case study we can expect another generation of lost regulatory trust.

Some Risk-Monger Advice

So the question comes down to one of quality assurance: How do we ensure that we have the right mix of scientists on our panels that can give advice in a responsible and precise manner? I was working on this question back in 2005, and for a brief moment, the European Commission was open to our ideas. I contributed then to a document, and led the promotion of its findings with the late, great Stanley Crossick, that included the need for a European Commission post of Chief Scientific Adviser.

The role of a scientific advisory position at the heart of European decision-making would be to filter out the science from the politics and steer the policymakers towards reliable sources of evidence. In the case of scientific panels, the chief scientific adviser could determine the right mix of the different fields, the right scientists and the depth of the issues the panels should be covering. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, a voice at the highest levels in the European Commission could have determined the right mix of scientists to sit on the advisory panel (including epidemiologists, mental health specialists, logistics experts and economists).

This post was created during the Barroso Commission and Dame Anne Glover was appointed to set up a small office. Within a short time she had created a network of national science advisory posts and eloquently brought scientific evidence into many longstanding European debates. This, of course, was anathema to the certain NGOs who knew facts and evidence were a challenge to their ideology. When Dr Glover stood up to the activists and spoke clearly about the safety of biotechnology, contrepreneurs like CEO’s Martin Pigeon and GMWatch’s Claire Robinson decided she had to go. Because Glover was popular, a number of NGOs launched an intense campaign to remove the entire science advisory post. The arrogance of ignorance prevailed.

Martin Pigeon’s success meant that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had no one advising her of the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic until it was far too late. She was going around giving talks on her scientifically naïve Green Deal while Italian morgues were piling bodies onto the streets. Precaution seems to be the only tool this present Commission is using in the face of pressing scientific issues. Today, as she, Paolo Gentiloni and Frans Timmermans talk about THE science and being kept 100% safe, the need for a scientist in the room is all the more urgent.

Why this KeystoneCorona failure is doomed to repeat itself

As I wrap up this ten-part series, please consider this final thought.

This COVID-19 policy travesty decimating most European countries was due, almost completely, to the regulatory reliance on the precautionary principle as the sole management tool in cases of uncertainty. Precaution is indeed very attractive. All that a policymaker needs to do is demand 100% safety and certainty (two emotional concepts) and then simply say “No!” to anything that does not meet these impossible demands. Better safe than sorry means you are never really wrong and most cases, no one will blame you for the lost benefits and societal consequences. But in the case of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the lost benefits are clearly evident – the bodies have been piling up outside of our leaders’ offices. How long can they continue to claim their “failure to act until it was too late” was indeed the only course of action?

The Precautionary Principle was a patchwork attempt to restore public trust and regulatory credibility following the risk communications crises of the 1990s (BSE, GM, MMR, dioxins, tainted blood, acrylamide…) but failure was baked into the remedy. What was missing in the 1990s was a clear risk management strategy. Precaution is not risk management but rather risk avoidance. When policymakers moved to precaution as the main tool to manage uncertainty in the early 2000s, engineers, chemists, epidemiologists and toxicologists (as well as The Risk-Monger) moved to developing more robust tools and systems to manage risks. These scientists could be ignored for the last two decades as the affluence brought about (by their technological innovations) could still compensate for the lost benefits from hazard-based precautionary policy judgements (Ban all agritech? … we’re still growing enough food elsewhere. Ban nuclear? … we can still afford to import energy).

But then a pandemic came and our affluence couldn’t cover up the tragic loss of life due to precautionary policy impotence. Seeing how ignorant European policymakers were on how to manage risks, on how to understand that the notions of zero-risk or 100% safe did not exist, I wrote a remedial 12 step “how-to” text for policymakers to teach themselves risk management for a post-COVID world (probably my most valuable work to date). I fear though, as most European countries are heading now into a third wave (three months after vaccines were approved), that this failure to implement risk management strategies will accelerate the downfall of Western societies (while Asian economies and cultures are humming along).

When will Europeans wake up and realise it was not a virus that killed so many of our family members but the poison of precaution and the failure of our leadership?

This concludes my KeystoneCorona series. As some may have observed, it was meant to be a year-end reflection for the catastrophic 2020 policy decisions and I am still writing this in the middle of March. Those who engage with me on my social media pages are aware that I have been battling a form of long COVID since I contracted the virus in early November (complications from inflammation, brain-fog, fatigue …). I have been struggling just to keep up with my academic obligations. I am aware that many of my critics think my strong public position against the lockdowns shows an insensitivity to those suffering from COVID-19. It is anything but that. Because I am high risk and have had such a rough time with my first exposure, it is with a desperate imperative that I try to find a way to get our European authorities to seriously learn to manage this risks.
We have to stop this debilitating precautionary mindset (this stupid belief that we can live risk-free simply by removing hazards) and implement (learn) proper risk management techniques. We deserve better than this.

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