Guess who’s back, with more quarentine-enabled time to rant on the internet? Me. Let’s do this.
Today (March 30, 2020), the New York Times released an interview titled “The Contrarian Coronavirus Theory That Informed the Trump Administration,” an interview with NYU law professor, Hoover Institution contributor, and right-wing “”””intellectual”””” Richard Epstein. After this interview, I could not put more sarcastic stress on “intellectual” if I tried. I highly suggest you read through the entire interview for yourself, as there is too much word salad for me to get into in one post. For some background:
“According to the Washington Post, “Conservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials have been circulating an article by Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution, titled ‘Coronavirus Perspective,’ which plays down the extent of the spread and the threat. . . . In it, he questioned the World Health Organization’s decision to declare the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, said that “public officials have gone overboard,” and suggested that about five hundred people would die from covid-19 in the U.S. . . . In a follow-up article titled “Coronavirus Overreaction,” Epstein wrote, “Progressives think they can run everyone’s lives through central planning, but the state of the economy suggests otherwise. Looking at the costs, the public commands have led to a crash in the stock market, and may only save a small fraction of the lives that are at risk.”
So. Let’s see what he has to say about his above statements on the day of our Lord, March 30. Get your hammers, sickles, and guillotines ready, folks.
What did you want to achieve with your pieces?
First of all, I am not a politician. What I did is that I looked at the standard model that was put out in the New York Times, which was backed up by other models in other places, and it occurred to me that I just did not think that the underlying assumptions there were sound. The single most important thing to me was not to get my own estimate of what the number is. The most important thing was to look at that curve, which seemed to suggest that there would be ten million cases a day during a ten-day or so band in the middle of July, and to explain why, in relationship to all other things I know about evolutionary theory, that this just has to be wrong. The better way to have phrased the paper would have been to say that the traditional models, which were used for the last flu season, for the 2009 H1N1 situation, are much better approximations of what is likely to happen than these rather scary kinds of projections.
First question, and he immediately makes no sense to anyone with even a cursory idea of what is going on. I’m going to be very clear about this: I am not an epidemiologist or virologist either. I do not claim to be an authority on the ideas. But I’m more of a scientists than Epstein, and, more importantly, I have the ability to actually research my shit. Below, you will find a brief snippet taken from the scientific journal Clinical Microbiology Review, published in 2007, regarding the SARS outbreak of 2001. It essentially predicts that this pandemic would happen, which is actually very impressive. I linked image because it’s projections are similar to the ones we see for Covid-19. They’re similar because SARS and coronavirus are the same thing! SARS is a coronavirus. You know what aren’t in any way the same things? Covid-19 and the flu. Or Covid-19 and H1N1, for that matter. They have entirely different makeups. Epstein has just admitted in his first answer that he doesn’t like the projections based off of the virus we’re dealing with and instead prefers to use projections for two totally different viruses with different means of transmission, severity, and rate of mutation because those charts are less “scary.” Way to go, guy.
You wrote last week, “In the United States, if the total death toll increases at about the same rate, the current 67 deaths should translate into about 500 deaths at the end.” We are currently at eight hundred deaths—over eight hundred deaths. [This was true when we spoke; the number is now over two thousand.]
First of all, let me just say I wrote an amendment to that, the thing I regret most in that whole paper. But I was not so much interested in explaining why my number was right. I was interested in explaining why the other projections were wrong.
Translation: “I didn’t have any actual alternative theories, I just wanted to disagree with ‘liberal academia’s” numbers without any well-defined reason.”
Secondly, suppose I should have been wiser in this and said, as I referred to the flu vaccine and later on to the H1N1 situation, if those are your benchmarks, then the number goes up to, say, between fifteen thousand and forty thousand deaths, as opposed to the one million-plus that are projected.
You can’t do that, Richard. They’re not the same thing! This is the virus equivalent of saying, “Yeah, the projected rate of car accident deaths is high when you look at cars, but if you just change it to plane crash deaths, that projected number goes way down!”
Something else you wrote, in an earlier piece, was, “Why has there been such a dramatic mismatch in the responses to ordinary flu and the coronavirus?” Is that a question you’re still unsure about?
Look, the basic problem is, I think, in effect, that the tendency on the part of many people to treat this particular thing as unique is a mistake. There’s an underlying, standard model that you want to use, and the question is how you stuff it full of parameters. That is, numbers you add into it to make what’s going on. And, so, the situation that you get is you cannot use any exponential system because essentially then everybody is going to be dead, because things just keep doubling, doubling, and doubling.
I know that’s a huge chunk, but hear me out: I included that entire answer to make a point about good ole’ Richard’s infuriating tendency to not answer any of the questions he’s actually asked and instead go on vaguely related tangents about “developing models” that are borderline word salad. That above bit of word vomit in know way addressed the question of “Do you still think we should treat this the way we treat the flu.” He does this for a good 80% of the questions, and I won’t torture you with any more examples. Just know he does.
To address his point: He complains endlessly throughout this interview about how the model we use to map Covid-19’s progression is exponential. He conveniently neglects to mention that these are short-term models. We’re not projecting the number of Covid-19 cases from now into infinity and saying that they’ll keep going up forever. The majority of projections I’ve seen only go up to 18 months. Once again, he’s being extremely pedantic and disingenuous and continues to just look like a guy who decided to be contrarian first and then did his “research.”
You wrote, “The adaptive responses should reduce the exposures in the high-risk groups, given the tendency for the coronavirus to weaken over time.” What tendency are you talking about, and how do we know it will weaken over time?
Well, what happens is it’s an evolutionary tendency. [“There is absolutely no evidence for that,” Ko told me. According to Kuritzkes, “There is no proof that this is the case. To the extent we see that evolution taking place it is usually over a much vaster timescale.”] So the mechanism is you start with people, some of whom have a very strong version of the virus, and some of whom have a very weak version of the virus. If the strong-version-of-the-virus people are in contact with other people before they die, it will pass on. But, if it turns out that you slow the time of interaction down, either in an individual case or in the aggregate, these people are more likely to die before they could transfer the virus off to everybody else.
On the other hand, those people have the more benign version of the virus that will allow them to live longer, which means that they have the chance to make a connection with somebody else. And so what happens is, if it turns out you think something like the coronavirus is ten times as strong as another virus, what that means is that the distancing is going to be more violent, which means that the evolutionary process should be more rapid than that for the ordinary flu.
This is just the first of a metric fuck-ton of examples of Epstein just . . . saying things about how viruses and evolution work that are objectively wrong and using that to justify his beliefs. There is no “strong” and “weak” version of Covid-19. There are symptoms of Covid-19 that range in severity, and some people can catch it an be asymptomatic. That doesn’t mean they have a “weaker” version of the virus. Someone who is asymptomatic can pass on the virus to someone else, and that person can have severe symptoms. Epstein’s assertion that the distancing is “violent” because we’re accounting for mild/asymptomatic cases and that we should already be fine because we’ve weakened the fictional “flu-like” projection pattern for the virus already just makes no goddamn sense. We haven’t even “weakened” the normal flu, Richard. That’s why flu shots are a yearly endeavor, because it doesn’t “weaken” over time, it just evolves into different strains that we haven’t built up an immune-response to yet. So even if Covid-19 was like the flu, what you’re saying still doesn’t make sense.
This particular version of Covid-19 has already mutated multiple times over the course of just a few months (starting in marine life, mutating to jump to bats, mutating again to jump to humans, and mutating again to have stronger effects on younger hosts). The idea that it’s going to suddenly stop adapting and get better is absolutely not backed by the evidence of how it behaves whatsoever. I also want to point out that his statement about viruses weakening over time is also objectively false. As the NYTimes fact checker points out, the only reason SARS didn’t explode was because they took public-health measures to address it, not because SARS just stopped being so bad after a while.
O.K., so your expertise in the subject I guess comes in part from your work with aids, which you just referenced, is that right?
aids, and I’ve worked on evolutionary theory for forty years in its relationship to law.
Once again: Covid-19=/= every other virus. Knowing a lot about AIDS does not mean you know a lot about this. At least the flu was somewhat comparable. AIDS is nothing like any kind of coronavirus. Also, he acts like he has “expertise” about how to deal with this because he “worked with” the HIV pandemic, but, if you actually look at what he did, he spent the entire time backing a historically and socially discredited policy of letting companies discriminate against “AIDS carriers” and having HIV not covered by private/employer-given health insurance. He also later backed the idea of price-gouging for HIV medication (i.e., that whole controversy where companies were charging tens of thousands of dollars for HIV medication that people would die without). So, I’m sorry, Richard, but I don’t think you count as an “expert” on a topic that you’ve only ever had universally discredited opinions on.
I’ll spare you the part where Epstein brags about how Bill Gates totally agrees with him before the interviewer reads a directly contradictory Bill Gates quote from, like, two days ago.
In short, Richard Epstein is a man who does not know how viruses work, apparently never did, and who has a recorded history of caring fuck all about community, social, and humanitarian efforts related to health in favor of corporate project margins. He is not qualified to be “making a new model” for how a virus he doesn’t even seem to understand the basics of will spread. And this is the guy whose paper was circulating around the White House, informing our pandemic responsiveness, because Trump fired almost everyone at the CDC.