There seems to be a pattern emerging to push back on any new information that suggests COVID-19 may not be as severe as initially believed, even if that new information comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). It is unclear why, although one might speculate that it could have something to do with government lockdown policies and the rush to bring a COVID-19 vaccine to market before the end of this year, which requires everyone to have a sense of fear and urgency to maintain public support for continued lockdowns and fast tracked vaccines.
On May 20, 2020, the CDC published a document titled COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Scenarios, which, among other things, estimated the infection fatality rate (IFR) for SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) at 0.26 percent—slightly higher than the 0.1 percent estimated death rate for seasonal influenza.1 2 3
The new IFR is far lower than the death rate for COVID-19 previously estimated by U.S. health officials. On Mar. 11, 2020, for example, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), told Congress that he believed COVID-19 was at least 10 times “more lethal” than seasonal influenza. Prior to that, the WHO had estimated that COVID-19 might be 20 times more deadly than influenza.4 5
CDC’s Estimated COVID-19 Death Rate Called “Too Low”
The immediate media response to the CDC’s much lower COVID-19 IFR estimate included headlines suggesting that many—if not most—public health professionals believed the mortality figure to be “too low.” A sub-headline in BuzzFeed News read: “Public health experts are accusing the CDC of bending under political pressure to say the coronavirus is less deadly.”6
In that article, Andrew Noymer, PhD, associate professor of population health at the University of California at Irvine, was quoted as saying:
This is terrible. This is way too optimistic. With this document, the CDC is determined to smash its credibility with the public health community of which it is supposedly a leader. These estimates are doing a disservice to policy because it’s not a realistic estimate of the risk.6
In the same article, epidemiologist Carl Bergstrom, PhD of the University of Washington in Seattle referred to the CDC’s lower COVID-19 rate as “deeply problematic” because it “underestimate[s] fatality by a substantial margin compared to current scientific consensus.”6
Bear in mind that these comments are directed at the CDC, not a dissident scientist or non-governmental organization branded as “anti-science.”
Epidemiologist William Hanage, PhD of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health characterized the CDC’s new COVID-19 mortality figure as “obviously lowball estimates.”7
Interestingly, the 0.26 IFR is consistent with two relatively recent studies conducted by researchers associated with Stanford University Medical School and the University of Southern California (USC). Both studies estimated the IFR for COVID-19 at 0.1 to 0.2 percent. Compared to these studies, the CDC’s new IFR would not be a lowball estimate but, rather, would be on the high side.8 9
WHO Pressed to “Clarify” Statement on Asymptomatic Spread of Coronavirus
The latest pushback on positive information related to lower mortality associated with COVID-19 infections has come in response to comments made by epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, MD of the WHO on June 8.10 11 12 Speaking about transmission of SARS-CoV-2 by infected persons who test positive for the virus but do not show clinical symptoms, Dr. Van Kerkove said:
From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual. We have a number of reports from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing. They’re following asymptomatic cases, they’re following contacts and they’re not finding secondary transmission onward. It is very rare—and much of that is not published in the literature. We are constantly looking at this data and we’re trying to get more information from countries to truly answer this question. It still appears to be rare that an asymptomatic individual actually transmits onward.10 11 12
These were clearly not flippant statements made in passing by Dr. Van Kerkhove, who is the WHO’s “technical lead” on COVID-19. This was a focused and precise statement given at a press briefing at United Nations (UN) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. There was no mistaking what Dr. Van Kerkhove meant, and yet the following day she found it necessary to “clarify” her words. An article by STAT noted:
The clarification comes after the WHO’s original comments incited strong pushback from outside public health experts, who suggested the agency had erred, or at least miscommunicated, when it said people who didn’t show symptoms were unlikely to spread the virus.13
Dr. Van Kerkhove clarified by saying, “The majority of transmission that we know about is that people who have symptoms transmit the virus to other people through infectious droplets. But there are a subset of people who don’t develop symptoms, and to truly understand how many people don’t have symptoms, we don’t actually have that answer yet.”13
In short, Dr. Van Kerkhove was pressured to backtrack and say something to the effect of, “Well, perhaps I misspoke. We really don’t know.” The June 9 STAT article quoted the following e-mail from the Harvard Global Health Institute:
The WHO created confusion yesterday when it reported that asymptomatic patients rarely spread the disease. All of the best evidence suggests that people without symptoms can and do readily spread SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In fact, some evidence suggests that people may be most infectious in the days before they become symptomatic—that is, in the presymptomatic phase when they feel well, have no symptoms, but may be shedding substantial amounts of virus.13
Harvard Researchers Collaborating with J&J on COVID-19 Vaccine with $1B Federal Funding
A team of researchers at Harvard led by Dan Barouch, MD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, is currently collaborating with Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceutical Cos. on the development of a COVID-19 vaccine. The Harvard/Janssen joint venture plans to begin human clinical trials on their vaccine this fall. “We want to move as fast as we possibly can, because we think the world needs a vaccine,” said Dr. Barouch, who is also director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.14
The effort on a COVID-19 vaccine by Harvard and Janssen is being funded through a $1 billion deal struck by Johnson & Johnson and the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in March. 15
1 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Scenarios. May 20, 2020.
2 TVR Staff. CDC Reduces COVID-19 Fatality Rate to 0.26 Percent. The Vaccine Reaction June 1, 2020.
3 Payne D. CDC: Coronavirus fatality rate could be as low as 0.26%. Just the News May 29, 2020.
4 Higgins-Dunn N, Lovelace B. Top US health official says the coronavirus is 10 times ‘more lethal’ than the seasonal flu. CNBC Mar. 11, 2020.
5 Lovelace B, Higgins-Dunn N. WHO says coronavirus death rate is 3.4% globally, higher than previously thought. CNBC Mar. 3, 2020.
6 Lee SM, Vergano, D. The CDC Released New Death Rate Estimates For The Coronavirus. Many Scientists Say They’re Too Low. BuzzFeed News May 28, 2020.
7 Whyte LE. Scientists Say New, Lower CDC Estimates For Severity Of COVID-19 Are Optimistic. NPR May 22, 2020.
8 Cáceres B. Stanford Study Suggests COVID-19 Mortality Rate Similar to Flu. The Vaccine Reaction Apr. 19, 2020.
9 Cáceres B.. Study Estimates CA COVID-19 Mortality Rate Under One Percent. The Vaccine Reaction May 3, 2020.
10 Feuer W, Higgins-Dunn N. Asymptomatic spread of coronavirus is ‘very rare,’ WHO says. CNBC June 8, 2020.
11 Howard J. Coronavirus spread by asymptomatic people ‘appears to be rare,’ WHO official says. CNN June 9, 2020.
12 Sullivan P. WHO official: Asymptomatic spread of coronavirus ‘very rare’. The Hill June 8, 2020.
13 Joseph A. We don’t actually have that answer yet’: WHO clarifies comments on asymptomatic spread of Covid-19. STAT June 9, 2020.
14 Siliezar J. Global race to a COVID-19 vaccine. The Harvard Gazette Apr. 13, 2020.
15 Press Release. Johnson & Johnson Announces a Lead Vaccine Candidate for COVID-19; Landmark New Partnership with U.S. Department of Health & Human Services; and Commitment to Supply One Billion Vaccines Worldwide for Emergency Pandemic Use. Johnson & Johnson Mar. 30, 2020.