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Scientist behind U.S., U.K. lockdowns drastically lowers death estimate

Art Moore

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Initial shocking figures cited by White House prompted unprecedented virus response

March 26, 2020


President Trump and his White House Coronavirus Task Force (White House photo)

The lead author of a dire coronavirus study cited by the White House, Downing Streetand other governments in their decisions to urge or impose unprecendented lockdowns and "social distancing" has drastically revised the estimated death toll of the pandemic in the U.K.

The study by Imperial College of London published March 16estimated that 2.2 million Americans and 500,000 Britons could die.

Now, lead author Neil Ferguson has testified to a parliamentary committee that the U.K. death toll is unlikely to exceed 20,000 and could be much lower, reported the website New Scientist.

And more than half that number would have died anyway by the end of the year, because of their age and underlying illnesses, he told the panel on Wednesday.

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The massive revision has significant implications for how governments are handling the pandemic.

The Economist reported last Fridaythat as governments around the world were "scrambling to get a grip on the covid-19 pandemic," the research by epidemiologists at Imperial College in London "helped change some of their approaches."

But Ferguson, reporting the figures, told the parliamentary select committee on science and technology he's "reasonably confident" that Britain's National Health Service can cope when the predicted peak of the epidemic arrives in two or three weeks, New Scientist reported Wednesday.

An average of about 29,000 in the U.K. die every year of the flu and related complications.

At the daily briefing Thursday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, mentioned Ferguson's dramatic downgrade of his estimate.

She said the predictions of models also "don't match the reality on the ground in either China, South Korea or Italy."

"Models are models. There's enough data now of the real experience with the coronavirus on the ground, really, to make these predictions much more sound," said Birx.

"So when people start talking about 20% of a population getting infected, it's very scary," she said. "But we don't have data that matches that."

Remarkable turn

Alex Berenson, a former reporter for the New York Times, wrote on Twitter of the "remarkable turn" by Ferguson, who now has tested positive for COVID 19 himself.

"Essentially, what has happened is that estimates of the viruses transmissibility have increased – which implies that many more people have already gotten it than we realize – which in turn implies it is less dangerous," wrote Berenson.

The former Times reporter noted Ferguson credits the lockdown for the low figures, but the U.K. lockdown began only one day before his testimony Wednesday. In theory, Berenson points out, lockdowns take two weeks or more to show any impact.

Berenson commented: "Not surprisingly, this testimony has received no attention in the US – I found it only in UK papers. Team Apocalypse is not interested."

In the U.S., meanwhile, forecasters at the University of Washington's School of Medicine released a study Thursday estimating COVID-19 could lead to more than 80,000 deaths in the country by early April under the current lockdown conditions, Agence-France Presse reported.

"Our estimated trajectory of COVID-19 deaths assumes continued and uninterrupted vigilance by the general public, hospital workers, and government agencies," said Christopher Murray, the director of the university's

"The trajectory of the pandemic will change – and dramatically for the worse – if people ease up on social distancing or relax with other precautions," he said.

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated80,000 Americans died of flu and its complications during the previous winter, the highest death toll in at least four decades.

The current U.S. death toll for the coronavirus pandemic is 1,143, with 79,082 confirmed cases.