Freedom regained! headlines. After two and a half months of confinement, little by little, people come out, get together, relive, a little haggard, at the end of this strange period. The health crisis is dissipating but it is giving way to an unprecedented economic and social crisis of which only the first shadows can be seen. The price to be paid to protect ourselves from the coronavirus threat will be harsh and long-lasting. It had to be because the danger was promised to be immense; the overwhelming majority of scientists agreed, taken up in chorus by almost the entire media sphere, to announce an unprecedented health catastrophe. Generalized containment was self-evident. There was no alternative. However, without calling into question the seriousness of Covid-19, a few rare voices expressed doubts about the recommended solutions. They remained inaudible in the face of the mainstream of unshakeable certainty. So what happened? Were the containment measures based on sound science? Did we not succumb to panic? Were we not victims of an unprecedented form of collective hallucination? We must begin to provide answers to these questions in order to understand, in a non-partisan way, and to draw lessons for the future.
When it all started
The "world before" seems so far away. But that was only six months ago. This 1er On January 1, 2020, at the market in Wuhan, China, men in protective suits carefully take samples and place them in sealed plastic bags. Disturbing messages are circulating on Chinese social media, fuelled by medical documents warning that patients are showing up at Wuhan hospitals with serious symptoms. Eight people accused of spreading "rumours" about the disease are summoned to the Public Security Bureau. A Wuhan ophthalmologist, Li Wenliang, is reprimanded for showing a group of former students at his medical school an analysis of a virus he believed to be Sras.
Eight days later, on January 9, the mysterious disease is identified: Chinese scientists claim that the Wuhan patients have contracted an as yet undiscovered coronavirus. During the night, a 61-year-old man died in a hospital in Wuhan, the first known victim.
On 13 January, Thailand reported its first case, a 61-year-old Wuhan resident whose high temperature was detected by a thermal surveillance scanner at Bangkok airport.
A committee of infectious disease experts, the Nervtag, is meeting in London to discuss the virus and believes that the risk to the United Kingdom is "very low, but warrants investigation and testing. The Chinese government says there is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission, including signs of illness among health professionals.
This official message is taken up by the WHO, which issues a press release in which it says it is reassured by the quality of the Chinese government's response. According to epidemiologists, the news is encouraging. « If there are no new cases in the next few days, the outbreak is over. "says Guan Yi, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Hong Kong, to the New York Times.
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For a fortnight, until 20 January, the virus seems to have disappeared from China. But suddenly it appears all over the country. On the evening of Friday, January 17, there were four new cases. Sunday, 139. By the end of the day on the 21st, cases will have been confirmed in Beijing and Shanghai.
It is spreading around the world: Japan, South Korea and the United States, where on January 19, a 35-year-old man returning from Wuhan presented at a clinic in Seattle, Washington, with a cough and high fever, becoming the country's first case.
Panic is growing in Wuhan. At 6 a.m. on January 20, more than 100 patients with coronavirus symptoms were waiting to be seen at Xiehe Hospital.
On January 24 the world learns with amazement that on the eve of the lunar New Year holiday, as hundreds of millions of Chinese travel to visit friends and family, the city of Wuhan is sealed off. Most transportation in and out of the city is suspended. More than 800 infections have been detected and 25 people have died.
Thousands of miles away, the virus arrives in France. The first three patients are announced: two in Paris and one in Bordeaux. These three Chinese patients had stayed in Wuhan. The trio had dozens of contacts and the French authorities say they are struggling to find possible cases. « We have to treat an outbreak like we treat a fire... "says Health Minister Agnes Buzyn.
Donald Trump received his first media question about the virus during his stay in Davos on January 22. When asked if he was concerned about a possible pandemic, he replied: "... I'm not sure if I'm concerned about a pandemic. Not at all. And we have it perfectly under control ".
On January 25, China moves one notch above and expands the containment to 56 million people. President Xi Jinping will warn that the country faces a "serious situation.
Birth of a star
While the world has yet to become aware of the threat of this new coronavirus, scientists are getting busy. In record time, the Chinese have published the coronavirus genome sequence and widely disseminated it to their peers around the world. Epidemiologists, meanwhile, are releasing their models and calculating their predictions. Among them is a personality who will become a media star. Neil Ferguson is a professor of medicine, a distinguished member of theImperial College of London, one of the most venerable institutions in the world. This professor is a specialist in mathematical modelling of epidemics. This is how he presenton the site of Imperial College, claiming to have mathematical models of the spread of infectious diseases, making it possible, thanks to "...". high performance computing ", from " provide predictive and quantitative analyses of alternative disease control and treatment strategies, as well as qualitative insights into the complex non-linear processes that shape the replication and evolution of pathogens. "He goes on to say: « An important part of my research program is therefore to develop the statistical and mathematical tools needed to ensure that these increasingly sophisticated models are rigorously tested and validated against epidemiological, molecular and experimental data. "
Professor Ferguson is not a basic modeler. He's a reference, an undisputed scientific figure. When he talks and predicts. is science. Everybody listens to it religiously, the New York Times... stating even that Ferguson and his team are the "one." golden standard "of epidemiological modeling. State-of-the-art.
And Professor Ferguson said, " millions of deaths ». This is what the new coronavirus has in store for us. According to him and his calculations, America alone will mourn 2.2 million deaths if nothing is done.
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What to do about the avalanche of corpses promised by Professor Ferguson to the world's rulers? How can we protect ourselves in the face of such a violent and massive cataclysm? We don't have enough hospital resources, not enough arms to save everyone. In France, we learn with horror that we don't even have masks and that our doctors are pathetically unarmed.
So, to protect themselves from evil, companies are digging up an old recipe, the quarantine...brought up to date with a word that will be on everyone's lips: containment. We're barricading ourselves in. The preventive measures that we could take, such as vaccines or stockpiles of drugs, are useless because we have neither vaccine nor drugs. The public knows that the great scientists in our research labs are going to figure it out eventually. But in the meantime, we are in danger of dying and the only protection they offer us is not to shake our hands, not to kiss us and wash us every hour with a hydroalcoholic solution. And above all, to lock us up to delay the impact of the epidemic, to "flatten the curve" of its spread. A situation of absolute uncertainty that cannot fail to feed all forms of anxiety and fear.
The most devastating computer error of all time.
Professor Ferguson predicted death, so let's lock ourselves in to escape it. « Whatever it costs ». But what are this professor's predictions worth? Scientists are used to evaluating, measuring, testing all hypotheses. However, in order to do this work, they need data, elements of analysis. What about Neil Ferguson's predictions? Neil Ferguson only reported the results of his forecast, but not the methodology. His colleagues from several countries around the world are urging him to provide the computer code he used to build his models. This is important because a predictive computer model is made up of data, assumptions and algorithms. Despite the insistence of his peers, Dr. Ferguson refuses to provide any information. He predicts, he guides the policies of the world's major governments, but his kitchen is private, circulate, there's nothing to see.
It will take several long weeks before Neil Ferguson finally decides to publish, on March 22, a partial and modified version of the computer code used to make his forecasts. The computer scientists who analyzed this code are appalled. The program used is thirteen years old, in other words an eternity in computer science, it is not documented and contains many bugs. Neil Ferguson himself admits on Twitter " I wrote the code (thousands of lines of undocumented C language) more than 13 years ago to model flu pandemics… »
This model is a " a hodgepodge that looks more like spaghetti programming than a finely tuned program. " Katie Bays, co-founder of the consulting firm Sandhill Strategy, the late David Richards, co-founder of the British data technology company WANdisco. « In our business reality, we would fire anyone for developing code like this, and any company that depended on it to produce software for sale would probably go out of business. ".
For their part, scientists at the University of Edinburgh are discovering that they cannot reproduce the same results, from the same data, using the model. The team obtained different results using different machines, and even different results for the same machines. « There seems to be a bug in the creation or reuse of the network file. If we try two completely identical executions, varying only to the extent that the second must use the network file produced by the first, the results are quite different "write the Edinburgh researchers on Github.
Yet it was on the basis of these models that the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, did an about-turn at the end of March. Having hitherto advocated a certain "laissez-faire" approach to the new virus, he finally opted for the generalised containment of the population, aligning his policy with that of most other European countries. The United States also adopted the model, which had predicted several million deaths in the United States without appropriate action.
The British daily The Telegraph titled this 16th of May: " Neil Ferguson's Imperial College model could be the most devastating computer error of all time... ». It is on this model, however, that the choice of containment was proposed through the WHO as a uniform response to all the governments of the world.
Tragic chorus in the media
This decision has brought the economy to a standstill. Never before seen, with a multitude of consequences that cannot yet be measured. Few have questioned or are questioning the strategy of locking up the population taken by the States. Confinement would be the postulate in the face of the epidemic, taken up by all the media, like the theme of a tragic theater chorus. « One of its most spectacular manifestations has not escaped anyone's notice: the curves, maps and graphs relating to the epidemic, the orders for confinement, quarantines and border closures, which have captivated and fed the world's media on a daily basis. " wrote anthropologist Denis Duclos. Homogeneous communication provided by all the flows of the mainstream fed the confined; the media kept " to accredit information that challenges government doctrine and the need for containment ".
In his sharp analysis, Denis Duclos continues: « Macabre daily counts, toxicity of the neighbour, apocalyptic predictions, morbid images in a loop: under the cover of protection against Covid-19, the media have organized the sanitary terror within a French population taken for as mature as a young child ... "
This is how the imperative need to accept decisions on generalised containment, infringements of the most fundamental freedoms, and the sidelining of the economies of dozens of countries is becoming a matter of urgency in people's minds. The whole of Western society and its media sounding board have revolved solely around this event. The spotlights first turned on hospital resources; medical personnel followed one another on television screens to warn not only of the danger of the virus but also of the shortage of hospital resources. Doctors occupied the sets to explain the measures to be taken to avoid overcrowding in the emergency services. For days and weeks, France, like the rest of the world, saw the epidemic through the number of resuscitation beds available, the stocks of masks and the availability of hydroalcoholic gel. Faced with the health crisis, political leaders scrupulously justified their decisions on the recommendations of their scientific councils. For several weeks, a large number of Western countries were led by doctors. No matter the inconsistencies, the reversals of position according to the knowledge acquired on the virus, the quarrels between labs or bigwigs, the scientific word was golden. Virtually no one dared to challenge it or simply question it.
Yet some voices have been raised to propose alternatives. Why generalised containment when only certain very specific categories of the population are concerned? Why lock up everyone, prevent work and economic activity, when only a few people at risk are threatened by Covid-19? In a post Published in UP', Professor Jean-François is one of the rare people to put forward the idea of proportioning the confinement to those who are most likely to develop serious cases of the disease: people over 65 years old, heart and vascular patients, people with respiratory or renal insufficiency, transplant patients, obese people, etc. In doing so, it seems unnecessary to him". to immobilize 80% of the active population - especially not those who come out of it cured and immunized after two weeks - and contribute, together with the young and most active, to extinguish the epidemic by reducing the size of the target population ".
Despite these warnings, containment was accepted as the undisputed solution. Scrupulously applied by political leaders, it resulted in particular in France in a system of monitoring unpublished, accepted by all, without flinching. The dream of the craziest dictator to force his entire population, to take away the most fundamental freedom of movement, to work, to send his children to school, has come true without a hitch, in all its aspects. voluntary serfdom.
The sacrifice of the country's population and economy was immeasurable, so the results achieved in controlling the epidemic had to be worthwhile. So the question was posed by politicians to scientists: Was containment effective?
The question deserved to be asked because, while new medical treatments proposed to cure Covid-19 cases must be validated by specific medical protocols, including double-blind studies, the benefits and risks of containment strategies are not subject to any comparative testing. The ethical and methodological framework of a randomized study is, of course, impossible to establish at the population level (yet it is the basis for establishing the scientific validity of therapeutic trials) and is therefore lacking to determine the benefit of measures such as containment, which also have significant and long-lasting side effects.
A Directed Study
The answer to the government's question, "Has containment been effective? "came from a study led by Professor Jonathan Roux and published on April 23rd on the website of the École des Hautes Études de la Santé Publique. It presents a model of the number of hospitalizations, intensive care patients and deaths potentially avoided by containment in France since March 17. The results of this study lead to this conclusion : " The study shows that one month of containment would have prevented up to 60,000 deaths and that without containment, more than 100,000 resuscitation beds would have been needed by 20 April 2020. ".
It is on the basis of the conclusions of this study that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe justified, before the National Assembly, the effectiveness of the containment ordered in France since 16 March.
However, it appears that the EHESP study poses several methodological problems: the confidence intervals around the modelled curves are large, which could call into question the models themselves. On the other hand, the curve diverges from the actual points used to validate the model and overestimates the number of events that could have occurred without containment. Finally, as the model values increase exponentially over time, the modeling systematically amplifies the results as time passes. Simply put, "... the model significantly overestimates the positive effects of containment ".
Franco-American researcher Thomas Meunier gives more details in an article published on medRxiv and confirms those reservations. The analysis report warns at the outset: " We show here that the available data show no effect of the total containment policies applied in Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom in the temporal evolution of the COVID-19 epidemic. "He goes on to say: « no positive change is noted in the trend in the daily growth rate of deaths, doubling time or number of reproductions, weeks after the containment policies should have shown their effects. "
The researchers say that " no lives were saved by this strategy. containment", in comparison with less restrictive policies of social distancing than total containment. They continue: " Comparison of the evolution of the epidemic between countries that are totally locked out and neighbouring countries that only apply social distancing measures confirms the absence of any effect of home confinement."
Studies on the issue of containment effectiveness are beginning to build the case that historians will one day make. They are converging to reveal how our behaviour imposed by emergency state policies is based on weak or even falsified scientific foundations.
Mathematics of complacency
This is the case of a study published in Science on 13 May and signed by 17 scientists belonging to prestigious institutions such as the Pasteur Institute, the University of Cambridge, Public Health France, etc. The main author of this study is Simon Chaumenez, mathematician, former student of Professor Neil Ferguson. The abstract of the article affirms in a very safe way fundamental conclusions for government decision making: "... the study is a very important step in the development of a new approach to the management of health care. Containment reduced the (baseline) reproduction number of the virus from 3.3 to 0.5 (84 % reduction). By May 11, when the bans are lifted, we estimate that 3.7 million people (confidence interval 2.3-6.7), or 5.7% of the population, will have been infected. Insufficient to create herd immunity and to avoid a second wave if all control measures are released at the end of containment. "
The results of this study were picked up by a large number of French media and helped to set up the doxa of containment efficiency.
A study of this type develops and bases its conclusions on complex equations, mathematical concepts that are light years away from the reach of a lay reader. One can only trust the authors and accept their conclusions. On the other hand, an informed mathematician will have a more critical eye. This is the case of Vincent Pavan, a mathematician at the University of Aix-Marseille, author of a reference work on " External algebras "published by ISTE, which conducted an critical view of the Science article.
He wrote: " Unfortunately, I cannot hide the fact that, despite the usual reservations involved in re-reading scientific work - anyone can always make a mistake and scientific work must invite modesty - I was completely surprised and angry. ». He goes on to say: « For a mathematics researcher and teacher, the article was indeed a compilation of all the possible atrocities that I warn my students about on a daily basis. Worse, in the detailed analysis of the authors' alleged results, one could discover what is most odious in hard science: the nonsense of the formulas, the false references, the tampered curves, the unsolved equations for which a result is forced, the total failure of numerical methods, the serious lack of understanding of the most basic notions"
Its analysis of nearly 100 pages is published below and will be of interest to informed readers. Its main conclusions are that most of the parameters used to justify the effectiveness of containment are erroneous.
In his book Misuse of science which has just been published by Ecosociété, the academic Jean-Marie Vigoureux explains in great detail how science is often called upon to "...". silence the speaker and impose decisions ». Following in the footsteps of Tzvetan Todorov, the author argues that politicians are happy to use science and expert studies to justify their decisions: "...the author is not afraid to use science and expert studies to justify their decisions. it's mathematical "is explained to justify choices. The author concludes " Science would thus have an answer to everything and would therefore be able to close the debate. ".
There has never been a debate on the desirability of blanket containment. Should four billion people be confined? This great question seems to be unopposed. We can debate the shortage of masks, the lack of resuscitation beds, this or that remedy. But we cannot question the confinement. It is a subject that has become taboo because of the sheer scale of the sacrifice it has imposed. A sacrifice based on such fear that it has led us to negotiate with our freedoms, to no longer resist power, to build a hygienic, distrustful and distant society.