Could Covid-19 be the biggest evidence fiasco of the century?

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

If so, the alarmists must be held to account. From Accounting Weekly.

Douglas County confirms fourth coronavirus case
Something terribly wrong with the fatality figures

I’m going out on a limb here. There’s something terribly wrong with the reported numbers of deaths from Covid-19. Let’s just call it the virus, since it’s the only one being talked about.

My social media is ringing non-stop with dire forebodings of the holocaust that is about to befall us. Then there are those who say this is mass insanity.

This is vitally important because the country’s economy has been shut down and will take years to recover. Just looking at the restaurants and hotels, most of the 270,000 people who work in this sector have lost their incomes and don’t know if they will have a job when the crisis is over. People are in a panic, fearing for their lives, their children, their parents and their jobs. We better make sure we are making the right decisions based on unimpeachable data.

Let’s start with South Africa, where there are 1,380 reported Covid-19 cases and five deaths – a fatality rate of 0.003%. That, of course, may change, but let’s stick with the figures we have so far.

We just don’t know how many people have the virus and have not been tested. Is it double the number of reported cases, or 100 times? Or is it just 1,380?

The average death rate for South Africans from all causes is 9.5 per 1,000 per year – slightly less than 1%. Is Covid-19 going to jolt this needle, even slightly? It could be argued that the quick action taken by the government to impose a lockdown may have saved thousands of lives, but that’s pure guess work.

The three leading causes of natural deaths in SA are listed as tuberculosis, diabetes and cerebrovascular diseases, according to government health stats.

Those in favour of an aggressive lockdown point to Italy, where the fatality rate appears to be a staggering 8-10% of cases testing positive. Rather be safe than sorry, they say.

In Spain, the fatality rate is 5-6%.

A closer look at Italian fatalities

Taking a closer look at Italy, we learn it has the second highest old age population in the world, where some 87% of those dying are over the age of 70, and of those dying more than 90% have other complicating diseases.

Prof Walter Ricciardi, scientific adviser to Italy’s minister of health, puts it this way: “The way in which we code deaths in our country is very generous in the sense that all the people who die in hospitals with the coronavirus are deemed to be dying of the coronavirus.”


In fact, just 12% of reported Covid-19 deaths in Italy had coronavirus listed as the cause of death. Eighty percent had at least two other diseases. Only 1.4% had no other diseases. This is according to the Italian government’s own report.


In other words, those dying who test positive for coronavirus are assumed to have died from coronavirus, ignoring other pre-existing illnesses. Which means Italy’s Covid-19 fatality rate could be a massive over-count. Adjust for this – as some have suggested should be done – and Italy falls into line with fatality rates elsewhere in the world.

It’s a similar pattern in Spain.

Captured by alarmists

Has the world been captured by alarmist virologists who have the ears of presidents and lawmakers everywhere?

If so, they must be held to account for the damage they have unleashed on the world. Because there will surely be other “coronavirus” epidemics in the future. Can the world sustain much more of this?

The University of Oxford’s Our World in Data group has stopped using data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) because its figures cannot be trusted. “The lack of good data available during the coronavirus outbreak has been a major source of frustration for economists, statisticians, scientists, and public policy professionals.

“A Stanford University epidemiologist and professor of medicine, in a widely circulated Stat article, recently said the COVID-19 pandemic could end up being “a once-in-a-century evidence fiasco.”

Author of the Stat article, Professor John Ioannidis, says data on how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving are utterly unreliable. “We don’t know if we are failing to capture infections by a factor of three or 300. Three months after the outbreak emerged, most countries, including the U.S., lack the ability to test a large number of people and no countries have reliable data on the prevalence of the virus in a representative random sample of the general population.”

This evidence fiasco creates tremendous uncertainty about the risk of dying from Covid-19. Reported case fatality rates, like the official 3.4% rate from WHO, cause horror — and are meaningless, adds Ioannidis.

Patients who have been tested for the virus are disproportionately those with severe symptoms and bad outcomes. As most health systems have limited testing capacity, selection bias may even worsen in the near future.

The one situation where an entire, closed population was tested was the Diamond Princess cruise ship and its quarantine passengers, where 700 passengers were infected and seven died. The case fatality rate there was 1%, but this was a largely elderly population, in which the death rate from Covid-19 is much higher. Assuming a more equally distributed population age, the case fatality ratio could range from 0.05% to 1%.

A population-wide case fatality rate of 0.05% is lower than seasonal influenza. German physician and member of the Bundestag, Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg, points to a Glasgow study showing coronavirus (of which there are many strains) accounting for nearly one-in-five common cases in of flu. Ioannidis adds that these “mild” coronaviruses may be implicated in several thousands of deaths every year worldwide, though the vast majority of them are not documented with precise testing. “Instead, they are lost as noise among 60 million deaths from various causes every year.”

UK epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who has Covid-19 himself, recently slashed his original projections of 500,000 UK Covid-19 deaths to less than 20,000 and expects the crisis to peak in 2-3 weeks. This reduction in estimates is based on evidence that the virus moves much quicker than was originally thought. Oxford University researchers have suggested potentially half the UK population may have been infected, in which case the fatality rate is far, far lower than reported.

If so, the much-maligned “herd immunity” (when enough people get the virus and build immunity) has already taken effect. As with previous epidemics such as Swine flu, the early prognostications of fatalities turn out to be wildly over-stated.

We better demand our government acts on correct data. Because when this blows over and South Africans survey the wreckage, they will look for someone to blame.

Even before the latest fatality stats, ETM Analytics economist Russell Lamberti questions whether the lockdown is proportionate to the threat from the virus. Nicolaas van Wyk, CEO of the SA Institute of Business Accountants (Saiba) says the damage to the business sector will not be easily repaired: “We really need to be sure government is making the right decisions based on the right data. What comes after the virus is what is most worrying, because people will be hungry and many businesses will have folded.”

Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.