Sunetra Gupta is Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford, and a Royal Society Wolfson Research Fellow. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a Ph.D. from the University of London. She has been awarded the Scientific Medal of the Zoological Society of London, the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin Award, and currently holds a Royal Society Wolfson Research Fellowship and an ERC Senior Investigator Award.
In addition to epidemiology she has expertise in immunology, vaccine development, and mathematical modeling of infectious diseases. Her area of specialization is evolutionary ecology of infectious disease systems.
The interview is 29 minutes. I’ve not edited it. I’ve been censored, locked out of big tech social media accounts, and consistently shadow banned for quoting Sunetra Gupta.
Transcript of Clips
It’s transcribed below along with some time-stamps for ease of navigation.
Iain Martin ➝ 00:00
Welcome to professor Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford. Thank you for joining us on Reaction. Professor Gupta, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke this afternoon in the House of Commons about there being no alternative to this latest month-long lockdown in England. Is he right?
I would beg to disagree. I think there is an alternative, and that alternative involves reducing the deaths that this pandemic might cause by diverting our energies to protecting the vulnerables. Now, why would I say that?
The main reason to say that is because the costs of alternative strategies such as lockdown are so profound that we are left with a contemplation of how to go ahead, go forwards, in this current sort of situation without inflicting harm, not just to those who are vulnerable to COVID, but to the general population in a way that meets with those standards that we set ourselves from the moment we were, maybe not born, but from the moment that we became cognizant of those responsibilities towards society.
And the Prime Minister produced a lot of graphs on Saturday when he was announcing the lockdown, and the government is putting a lot of faith in numbers, which show that the NHS, in the government’s terms, will be overwhelmed. Do you think those numbers are not correct? Or they are correct and that the policy is still wrong?
But they’re suggesting up to something like 4,000 deaths per day.
So the beauty of protecting the vulnerable is that you can do that, no matter what the predictions are.
But the truth of it is that predictions are – mathematical models do not provide the, I mean, they are very good tools when you are trying to understand how an epidemic progresses, but they’re not fundamentally terribly useful when you’re trying to project how many deaths are going to occur.
So at the end of the day, we have to consider, you know, what actually is happening here. And these models have been presented to the public without – what they should’ve done is said, okay, this is what will happen if we assume this.
And that’s not been the way that they’ve been presented to the public. So there is a real problem there in that we don’t know what assumptions have gone into those models. So what I’m trying to say in a nutshell is that the idea that if you protect the vulnerable, that is the best way forwards anyway, pertains in all of these situations.
But leaving that aside, the kind of models that the government clearly base their decisions on are predicated on certain assumptions, which have not been made clear to the public. And which I suspect if they were made clear to the public, [they] would not necessarily stand up to public scrutiny.
What are those assumptions, do you think?
So these assumptions concern who is currently susceptible.
So what proportion of the population is currently susceptible to infection and disease, and also what the infection fatality rate is, by which I mean to say, if you do get infected by COVID, what are your chances of dying?
And those two critical parameters need to be very carefully thought through before we can make any kind of assessment of what is likely to happen now. I don’t think that’s been sufficiently made explicit or discussed in any detail.
So they did have you invited it in a few weeks ago to give your view, and SAGE, the famous or infamous committee, which advises the government on this was said to be more open to the thinking of you and several other academics who take a different view from the consensus or from the view that’s been advising the government.
How did that go? Did you feel that you were listened to, or do you feel, obviously in the light of this lockdown decision, the message didn’t get through?
No, I do not feel that our views have been adequately represented. Not because I don’t feel that they’ve listened to us, but because we haven’t been allowed on the table. There has been no debate. I have repeatedly requested debates and they’ve been ignored.
November 2, 2020
” the government clearly base their decisions on are predicated on certain assumptions, which have not been made clear to the public. And which I suspect if they were made clear to the public, [they] would not necessarily stand up to public scrutiny.”
So there was a call earlier on… God, many months ago now… from independent SAGE to have a debate, which probably followed from Karl Friston’s analyses of what was actually happening here, which has a lot of concordance with our own thinking and Karl Friston on independent SAGE. And I very happily agreed to that opportunity to have a fallen free debate.
And that did not happen. And essentially, yes, we were invited to present our opinions to Downing Street, but that was just like standing there and saying, “Oh, this is what I believe.”
What response did you get? Did you get any feedback?
I mean, there was a sort of nice general sort of response in terms of, “Oh, well, we’ve thought about herd immunity and that doesn’t really stand, that ” when tatters,” I think was the phrase that was used. But you know, I mean, these are not silly little quibbles about what herd immunity really means and whatnot.
This is about the lives of millions of people and what’s gonna happen to them after this, you know, if we put in place these awful measures. So I don’t think that… What we need is a very free and frank debate where nobody has any vested interest in their own ideas and opinions going through.
And that applies to me. If I’m wrong, I would really like to know, you know, where the deficits line my thinking, because that’s how it has to be. I mean, none of us has the real true.
We don’t have a hotline to the sky pilot, whoever is coordinating all this. We don’t. We just really need to sit around the table and have a rational civilized discussion about what’s going on.
The case of your critics is that if they’re wrong in their terms, they have at least saved saved lives. Of course, with the ever present possibility that it has cost lives in other respects because of the economic distress and untreated diseases and all the rest of it. But their argument is that their policy is saving lives and that if you’re wrong and your analysis turned out to be wrong, and that shielding the vulnerable prove to be too difficult an enterprise and involve too many people for it to be practically possible, that the result could be 200, 300, 400 thousand deaths.
How do you respond to that?
Well, first of all, I do think that it’s very important to remember that our objective function is to reduce harm. So do need to have a discussion. As I said, we need a free and frank discussion discussing what are the harms of locking down versus the harms of not locking down.
And that needs to be the basis. And then we move from there. So the harms of lockdown don’t seem to enter the conversation when one is discussing this with the proponents of lockdown. So that’s a problem in and of itself, and that needs to be sorted out.
The harms of lockdowns are profound. And they range from things that are sadly intangible at the moment to those which are very tangible, like the losses of cancer screenings and the obvious sort of emotive image of the child who doesn’t get to go to school and get the one meal that he or she gets for, you know, proper meal they get in school and also such facts as 130 million people starving to death as a result of this, which I think we need to do.
I mean, we’re ignoring the fact that a lot of people are becoming increasingly nationalistic in the face of this disaster. So there are people who I’m sure voted to remain, who are very happy to in this crisis say, well, we’re not going to let anyone in through our borders because that’s the way to proceed.
So there are all these sort of weird dissonances that are creeping up, which I think are really ones the people should attend to. I’m not pretending that we know how to handle this crisis. Sometimes a crisis does cause you to pause and reflect upon what you’ve previously held dear.
And then you think, well, actually I want free movement into this country, but not at the expense of people, all these people dying. So I’m not saying that any of these issues are really easy to address or can be done on the basis of some preconceived set of moral principles that one held.
You know, we all know that plagues, plagues and pestilence do cause us to quite severely question and scrutinize those ideals by which we’ve lived.
So I have a lot of tolerance for all of that, but I think that we really need to think very carefully about what’s happening now. And what’s happening now is that there is an increase in cases, which is as we’d expect, given that the winter is setting in.
And the real question that we need to be thrashing out is is this an increase in cases that is commensurate with a situation where it won’t reach such levels as ones we absolutely cannot manage through what we have by way of really quite a fractured health service, or is it something we can manage in those terms?
November 2, 2020
“the harms of lockdown don’t seem to enter the conversation when one is discussing this with the proponents of lockdown. So that’s a problem in and of itself”
And even if we can’t manage it, what are the costs of lockdown that actually sanction the state? So they are very simple at some level, optimization problems, which we need to simply grapple with.
Iain Martin ➝ 12:36
You did say in your interview with Reaction in July that you did anticipate a rise in cases as positive test results in in you anticipated that happening in the autumn and early winter. Is it, do you think looking at the numbers, looking at the various bits of data produced by the government, is that exceeding your expectations or is the situation still looking manageable?
Oh, absolutely. Yes. I don’t think they’re exceeding my expectations. And there is a fundamental fallacy here, which is that the models on which government are relying are ones in which they assume that the proportion of population immune or not available for infection is very large.
Whereas that may really not be the case as has been revealed by a number of very, very competent immunological studies.
So we need to think about where we really are at with regard to how many people are actually susceptible. And if you put those calculations of who might be susceptible and who might not be into the reckoning in any kind of mathematical framework, even with the caveat that these frameworks don’t have, they’re not capable of making the kinds of predictions on which you could firmly base public policy.
Even if you do that, you should be able to easily see that when… This increase now, seasonal increase in epidemics, maybe quicker than what is anticipated by people who think most of the population is susceptible.
And certainly starting to establish itself like a new infection. You might, what is also equally plausible is that it’s not doing that. It’s an old infection, which is reaching the state of endemic stability. And right now conditions have changed so that its ability to transmit has increased for a number of reasons, not just temperature, students, people moving around and all that.
So it will increase now. But it will plateau. So just the fact that it’s increasing now doesn’t mean it’s going to overshoot any expectation that these models have in front of us. And really, I think it’s quite absurd that they’ve been offered without any explanation as to what their assumptions are.
So your expectation is that it could, as we go into the winter, plateau and that it will exist, sort of number of new cases will exist at a higher level, but that it’s not going to sort of shoot off the charts.
I think that is very plausible. I would hate to be one of those people who says that is exactly what is going on because that’s not what scientists should be doing.
We can put some expectations, some sense of expectation and some numbers and some links we can make explicit to the general public as we should, because that’s our duty. Our duty is not to sit around and make arcane calculations. Our duty is to make explicit to the public what the link is between the processes that we know to be true, and which the public can easily recognize being true with the patterns that we’ve seen.
Because that is our responsibility to educate the public in that process, which is not something that is beyond everybody. That is a transgressive fallacy.
Have you been surprised by the scale of the criticism that you’ve faced for trying to introduce these ideas? I mean, you were involved in the Great Barrington Declaration and some media outlets have taken a very, very robust view on your take on what’s happening. Has it taken you aback?
Oh, completely so. I mean, particularly because I consider my politics to be very, you know, sort of left wing of the labor party. So I find it very strange that those outlets, which I would have commonly relied upon to say, “Okay, this is a disaster. Lockdown is a luxury of the rich. Lockdown is a luxury of the affluent countries,” to not pay heed to that because, you know, I may be right or may be wrong but that’s where I’m coming from.
November 2, 2020
“It’s an old infection, which is reaching the state of endemic stability. And right now conditions have changed so that its ability to transmit has increased for a number of reasons, not just temperature…”
And I’d expect that that was listened to, by those who are like-minded, at least in that regard, I mean, in that objective. They may say, well, actually, you’re wrong. Actually lockdown really harms the poor. Well, yes. Okay. Tell me that and I’ll listen to it. But my starting point was that lockdown was going to harm the disadvantaged, that lockdown was a, I mean, the reason we had to lockdown was because the NHS had been underfunded for a very long period of time.
And that we’d given up on looking after the vulnerable. I’m reminded of very, very touching line from a Caryl Churchill play where she says, well, what happens to those who are weak? And even those who are wicked lazy. And that’s been my mantra, is we look after everyone.
And I don’t see how lockdowns are helping us look after everyone. I think they’re looking after those of us who like me have wonderful job security, lovely houses and whose children are at a stage in their lives where you don’t really have to worry about them. You worry about little things like, oh, it’s lockdown, not so nice for them, but you’re not worried about putting food on the table in front of them.
And I just cannot understand how people can’t be sensitive, wouldn’t be sensitive to these issues.
One of the most striking features of the crisis has been that governments and populations are prepared to undertake draconian, authoritarian in certain cases, measures of a kind that would have seemed unimaginable even just seven or eight, nine, ten months ago, lockdowns, for example.
What do you think explains that willingness of people to go along with it? Is it because this is the first global pandemic of the tech and social media age, and is it because large parts of the more affluent parts of the workforce can for the first time, in a way that they couldn’t have, for example, in the 1960s, or if it happened in the 1930s, can work from home perfectly satisfactorily in a way that would have been unimaginable without tech? Is it a lockdown facilitated by technology?
I completely agree. Yes. I think it is. I think it very much is. And then that’s what then brings into sharp focus the technological poverty that is suffered by large sectors of the global population.
So we do something that is completely congenial to those who can conduct their lives, transact through this medium of technology, which includes me – mainly, I mean, I of course have lab. They’re doing all sorts of things, including coronavirus.
We’re looking at how antibodies developed coronavirus, but that’s also something that’s… I mean, we’ve lived in that bubble of sanctions. So there are sanctions that are afforded to those of us who do what is considered to be essential work. And there are sanctions afforded to those of us who can live our lives through technology. And what we are ignoring for the very large part is that much of the world does not have that privilege.
Even in education, you know, technology apparently can deliver education to children, which is so neglectful, first of all of those who don’t have that option.
And secondly, of everything else that accompanies education that cannot be delivered through technology. So indeed it is, as you say, something that has been enabled by technology, in some ways fortunately, you know, that is a good thing.
In some ways that’s stopped people who would be completely and utterly out on limb if such a measure came in, but then paradoxically, maybe such a measure would never been able to come in if we didn’t have the technologies that enabled it.
Iain Martin ➝ 22:59
It would have been unthinkable. But how do you explain the public popularity for measures. The public is pretty much overwhelmingly not in favor of this stuff and isn’t being persuaded by the skeptic line. Why is that?
Yes, of course, that was the second part of it, which is that people have been told, through technology, of course, that this is the way to assess the situation. I have a huge amount of trust in the public. So I think that if they were told what perspective that they needed to take on this, then I think they would have been able to come to different decisions, but that’s my speculation.
But I think part of what’s played, I mean, part of why that’s the case is because the public is no longer naturally educated in understanding risk and understanding the social contract. So this is completely different from all this stuff about personal liberty and whatnot.
This is about our social contract where we say, well, we know that 30,000 people might die of flu this year, but are we going to stop everything, are we going to allow children to not go to school and not get that one school meal just to stop the 30,000 deaths of flu we might experience.
And the social contract that we entered into a long time ago was one where we said, no, we will tolerate those flu deaths. We will live with them because we don’t want to harm the rest of the population in the way that would be inevitable If we tried to stop these few deaths.
So without prejudice, without saying that’s how we should be, let’s have a discussion about whether that’s what we want with respect to the coronavirus situation as well. Do we want children to starve in their homes?
Do we want the government to say, “Oh, well, it’s all right. We’ve just been giving money to the households that look after them.” When we know that that money will not go to putting a little plate of baked beans in front of that child. Are we willing to do that?
So a lot of people are feeling – let’s be blunt – feeling really quite miserable and down about the next few months. And there seems to be this expectation that four weeks might not be deemed enough by the authorities. Is there an optimistic way to look at 2021? What’s your best case scenarios cheer people up?
November 2, 2020
“we said, no, we will tolerate those flu deaths. We will live with them because we don’t want to harm the rest of the population in the way that would be inevitable If we tried to stop these few deaths.”
Well, I mean, I think that it’s very, very difficult because when locked down, one of the sort of problems inherent in lockdown is that it’s not a permanent fix. It’s not a permanent fix unless you think that we get case numbers down to the point where you can track, trace, and kill everything. I find that very hard to accept as a possibility.
And I’m sure any rational person would. So that’s difficult. Then where is lockdown going to end? Could it end in a vaccine? Well, may I sincerely hope the vaccine is found, which will protect the vulnerable, which is, I think the main thing we should be focusing on given that lockdown is not a single solution.
So ,where are we at? I mean, we need to think about how we can move forward. And the hope, the beacon of hope here is like the major, the other, coronaviruses the four of them rather than three, but there they are.
They have traveled through difficult terrains and we have traveled through difficult terrains with them, but they are the beacons of hope because that’s where we get to with a new coronavirus. It’s a difficult journey, but we get there.
And in that difficult journey, all we can do is look to the bright star and try and protect those who have a hard time of it actually. That’s how the Elliot poem starts, doesn’t it [laughter]. So we protect those who have a hard time with it, but we reached the end where we settled down to a steady accommodation with this virus and live with it as we do with everything else.
November 2, 2020
“one of the sort of problems inherent in lockdown is that it’s not a permanent fix. It’s not a permanent fix unless you think that we get case numbers down to the point where you can track, trace, and kill everything. I find that very hard to accept as a possibility.”
I’m sure we can make improvements to our lives, such that we can do better than that. But for the moment that’s where we’re at. And we can hope to head back there. I think we can hope to head back to the old normal.
Next year, do you think? Or is it more, is that more likely to be 2022?
That depends on how many lockdowns come in to stop the old normal from establishing itself.
Yeah. Professor Sunetra Gupta. Thank you very much for joining us.
My pleasure. Bye for now.
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Source: ‘Sunetra Gupta interview: new lockdown is a terrible mistake”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVGP0A7wgbk (Copyright Reaction Digital Media Limited, November 2, 2020 – Permission Sought)