Monday, January 17, 2022

Early Days

I got caught up in listening and reading about what people involved in related sciences are saying in retrospect about the early responses to covid. I am not sure how valuable this will be - you know the drill on the limitations, but let me review them, perhaps for myself more than for you.

These are retrospective, and we all color those very quickly. Well, not me, but everyone else. So while the people I am seeking out seem to be fair-minded, that is likely not quite as true as hoped.  Still some do better than others.

I have a bias toward those who say "Everyone was wrong on all sides" and am perhaps too willing to be swayed by their evaluations of who was more wrong. Even if people are working hard to not let their political and cultural beliefs sway their scientific assessments, they do have opinions. These matter. In this vein, most don't like Trump from the outset, believing he is not deeply understanding of both science and social norms.  But a surprising number were willing to note that his political opponents were worse in particular areas, and some of what went wrong was not especially political.

We should probably be focused forward not backward, because until we are clear we are not likely to learn lessons without blaming. But a few things were mentioned often enough that they deserve attention before the paint is dry.

First up, the Respiratory Virus Lab at the CDC screwed up making a covid test, so we all thought there were many fewer cases on than there actually were. If more people had had better numbers...well, we don't know. But it would at least not have been worse. There are complications in making tests, because you need both negative and positive controls.  You have to be able to check whether the test is lighting up for everything, or even just too often, but you also have to have controls that it will light up for something, not just give the result that no one, or almost no one, has the disease. Because they did these in-house, they were contaminated by those working in the labs. And useless. Worse, the Fred Hutch research lab at UWash had a working test, but did not have permission from the FDA to give the results to people and had to send results through the CDC, which was a delay that cost us a great deal. That was a simple fix, a mere wave of the hand.

Two researchers mentioned that it became a bigger deal when the vaccines came out so quickly. They had been shrugging that it didn't much matter, as we were not going to squash this thing, only slow it, and all we could do was manage hospital capacity.  But both mentioned that when the vaccine came on - which they were not expecting - the possibility that we could have had far fewer cases simply by intervening earlier distressed them.  I am taking their words for it that it mattered. It seems plausible. 

Several mentioned on this score that Donald Trump shut things down two or even three weeks too late. But most noted, some grudgingly, that Democrats caught on even later than that. And one mentioned one thing that distracted Trump and another that distracted the very people who could have informed him better - and both were highly political. He had just come out of the impeachment jockeying.  How's that look now? It was in my view politics as usual with Trump too clumsy to cover his tracks, but in a gotcha world where it's the power game, not the substance, that gave Democrats an opening. It's not much mentioned now, but it was a distraction at the worst possible moment. The second distraction was Richard Dawkins tweeting that "well, eugenics would actually sort of work in some ways," and everyone involved with genetic science, or indeed most of biological and social sciences, had to spend a few days showing off condemning that someone had supposedly encouraged eugenics, even though that is not what he said.  No matter, it was time for posing. This spread in concentric circles, though with less force to the wider society. I was surprised that people who clearly don't like Donald were so willing to grant him these considerations in the evaluation. So...Trump was terrible but he didn't screw up the CDC tests or make the FDA obstinate, and liberal showboating made things worse? Maybe that's a summary of the first few months? Well, that's the answer I wanted to hear, so maybe I should be more suspicious of it.

None praised Tom Cotton, which I think a serious omission. If only, if only. 

Some of you know more, or remember more about this than I do.  I am just copying the work of the kid next to me in class here.

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