Experts criticize Josef Buttigieg of the University of Regina, who specializes in neurobiology and physiology of stem cells, for his publications on social networks that question the measures of physical distancing of the province and the competence of those responsible for Saskatchewan health.
In a widely released video posted on April 8, Buttigieg said that the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) had shown “gross nonsense” in its management of the pandemic because it was unwilling to carry out or to approve antibody testing.
“Why don’t they listen to alternative theories and theories? Buttigieg said in an interview with CBC News on April 13.
Buttigieg said antibody testing is a simple way to assess whether his theory that most people in Saskatchewan have had the virus before is correct.
Antibody blood tests detect the presence of antibodies that form as a result of an infection and can help identify who had the virus and recovered.
They differ from nasal swab tests, which detect active infection and help public health authorities to monitor and stop the spread of the disease.
“The result of this test will show that the vast majority of the population has already had the virus, which means that social isolation is 1) not necessary and 2) has not worked as well as we thought. Writes Buttigieg in an April 2 Facebook post.
WATCH | According to an associate professor of biology, locking out the province is not necessary:
P wishful thinking ’
Experts consulted by the CBC agreed that if 60-70% of the population had anti-COVID-19 antibodies, this should prevent the virus from spreading as widely or as quickly. It is a concept known as collective immunity.
But Hassan Masri, a Saskatoon-based doctor and associate professor of medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, said that Buttigieg’s claim is “wishful thinking” and that COVID-19 studies around the world have shown no comparable infection rate.
“This is not an evidence-based claim at all,” he told CBC News. “The claims are downright incorrect … But also, they are misdirected in their timing, spreading distrust in society. “
Masri was so concerned about what Buttigieg said in his video that he posted his own video on Facebook, refuting the claims.
Antibody test plan in preparation
Saskatchewan chief medical officer of health Saqib Shahab confirmed at a press conference on April 11 that Saskatchewan was working on an antibody testing plan.
Buttigieg told CBC News that he was “delighted” to hear this news.
He said he wanted someone to tell him that when he started asking questions about the problem weeks ago, because this whole “storm” could have been avoided.
Researchers around the world perform antibody tests, but the scientific community also raises doubts about the reliability of such tests, who are sensitive to false positives.
Health Canada has not yet approved COVID-19 antibody tests, in part because of these concerns.
In addition, in a scientific brief published on Friday, the World Health Organization has warned that it is not yet clear to what extent the antibody response to the virus protects against re-infection
“We expect that most people infected with # COVID19 will develop an antibody response that will provide some level of protection. What we don’t know yet is the level of protection or its duration, “the agency said. tweeted.
Few cases and slow growth
Buttigieg hypothesized that the declining number of new cases in Saskatchewan suggests that his opinion may better explain what is actually going on than the models offered by the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
In his lowest estimate, released April 8, SHA predicted that Saskatchewan would see 153,000 people infected and just over 3,000 people would die from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
On the same day, Buttigieg posted a video on Facebook in which he claimed that the evidence ran counter to the official screening.
He said that instead of an increase in the number of new cases, Saskatchewan was seeing a decrease.
“We should see a peak of 30 to 40 new cases a day. Not seven. Not six. Not five, ”he said. “And what’s going to happen over the next few days – we’re going to see these numbers here in Saskatchewan start floating again and start to go down at the bottom of that curve. And the reason is, as I said, most of us have already been infected. “
Since posting this video, the number of new cases has remained low. On Sunday, the province had 353 confirmed cases and four deaths.
Experts consulted by the CBC say it is not because most of us have had the disease before, but because the virus arrived here later than in other places in North America, which allowed Saskatchewan to implement aggressive physical distancing measures relatively early.
“The social distancing measures have worked,” Cory News told Cory Neudorf, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“We were able to overcome this earlier because it hit us later, and therefore, despite the fact that we are testing more and more people with mild illness, we do not get higher and higher rates of positives. “
In his April 8 video, Buttigieg said, “Who knows? Maybe I am wrong, and the government is right, in which case good luck to all of you. But I’m willing to bet that my assumption is correct. “
Video gets around 40,000 views
In the space of a week, approximately 40,000 people watched Buttigieg’s video on Facebook, of which approximately 1,500 shared it and dozens commented.
Some commentators have praised Buttigieg for questioning the science behind the lock.
He acknowledges that some of these people captured his video to advance their own programs.
He said he had no Facebook experience and didn’t realize his video was going to travel the way it did.
“I certainly should have been more careful with the choice of my words,” he told CBC News.
“I never assumed that individuals, particularly from the crowd of aluminum foil hats, would begin to take and completely distort this. “
Buttigieg said that in addition to comments from supporters, he also heard the criticism loudly.
Because of these criticisms, he deleted the April 8 video and several other Facebook posts.
Although he still maintains many of his opinions and continues to push for antibody tests, he says he regrets the way he expressed his opinions.
“I don’t want to offend others and hurt others’ feelings and make them think I’m a pseudoscientist who spreads false information,” Buttigieg said in a video posted on April 14 on Facebook.
Experts Criticize Buttigieg’s Claims
CBC News asked Masri, Neudorf and Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan, to assess some of the claims made in the Buttigieg video.
They raised a series of concerns.
They said that Buttigieg has:
- Put forward an imprecise and ill-defined hypothesis.
- Overestimated the spread of the virus without evidence.
- Dangerously casts doubt on the benefits of physical remoteness in the midst of a pandemic.
- Unjustifiably undermines the authority and expertise of those responsible for the Saskatchewan public health response to COVID-19.
Criticism 1: a poorly defined hypothesis
Experts have said that Buttigieg does not know exactly what he is claiming.
At least four times in the 15-minute video, he hypothesizes that “most” of the people in the province of about 1.1 million people have already been infected and recovered.
“We see that many countries do not do social isolation, do not handicap their economy, they are doing very well,” he said. “So this suggests that most people have already been infected. “
However, at other times in his video, he made less radical statements, such as:
- “We are already between 200,000 and 300,000 people infected here, period. “
- “I’m willing to bet that around 40% of people, at least those around me, have already been infected with this virus. “
In an interview with CBC News on April 11, he hypothesized that 10% to 20% of the population had COVID-19.
Masri said the gap was confusing.
“For me to have such an assumption and to have an error [margin] more or less 300,000 people are mind-blowing. It’s a quarter of the province you talk about plus-minus, “he said.
Neudorf echoed these concerns, saying that Buttigieg’s claims are “not internally consistent, so I don’t know what his assumption is.”
In an April 13 interview, CBC News asked Buttigieg to explain the discrepancies. He said he spoke badly when he said that “most” of the people had the virus.
“The assumption I stand by is that about 200,000 people in the province have already been exposed to this virus and are probably carriers of antibodies to this virus.”
Muhajarine said that even in this case, physical distance would still be necessary because the province would be far from collective immunity.
Critical 2: Overestimating the spread of the virus
In his April 8 video, Buttigieg stated that SHA mistakenly believed that the virus was in the early stages of its spread in Saskatchewan and that only a small proportion of the population was infected. He said that this opinion is based on a mistaken belief that the virus only recently arrived in Saskatchewan.
“I don’t know why they can’t understand that this virus has been around for six months now,” he said in his video.
The first suspected case of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan was announced on March 12.
Buttigieg says COVID-19 probably arrived in Saskatchewan in January and most or most of the people here had the disease, which means the province is now at the back end of the viral curve.
He said that’s why Saskatchewan’s infection rate is so slow. Some days there are more people recovering than new confirmed cases.
Masri said the reason Saskatchewan’s cases are declining is because the province has practiced physical distance. He said even the lower end of Buttigieg’s estimate – 200,000 people infected – is questionable.
He said Buttigieg’s estimates “have not been matched by any study in the world,” including a recent study using antibody tests in Santa Clara County, California.
In this study, public health officials as well as researchers from Stanford University and the University of Southern California tested approximately 3,000 people and found the new anti-coronavirus antibody was present in about two and a half to four percent of them.
“It’s not 50 or 40 or 30 or 80 percent – that we know,” said Masri.
Masri said it is likely that the number of people infected in Santa Clara County would be higher than in Saskatchewan since it is one of the most densely populated counties in California and he probably would have seen more international travelers infected than Saskatchewan at the start of the pandemic.
Neudorf said it is likely that the Santa Clara County results are an overestimate of the infection rate as the test technology is new and sensitive to false positives.
“You can sometimes see an artificial doubling of the actual number of cases due to false positives,” said Neudorf.
In a preliminary antibody study released this week in New York State – one of the hardest hit regions in the world – almost 14% of the population tested positive, about 10 times the number of cases confirmed.
“Modeling is an inexact science”
Neudorf said that although he disagrees with Buttigieg’s assumption about the infection rate in Saskatchewan, he agrees that many more people are likely to have been infected than the official number.
To date, Saskatchewan has performed nearly 28,000 nasal swab tests, which is more per capita than most provinces in Canada, including British Columbia. and Ontario, but it’s difficult to map the full extent of the epidemic.
“Modeling is an inexact science,” said Neudorf. “The numbers could be shifted by a factor of 10 or even a factor of 100.”
Based on his review of studies from other jurisdictions, Neudorf suspects that around 1% of the province has been infected at some point, which is estimated to represent around 11,000 people.
Buttigieg admitted to the CBC that his theory had led him to an incorrect conclusion in at least one case.
In an article published on April 2 on Facebook, he predicted that the COVID-19 epidemic in the UK was on the verge of collapse.
“Only 30,000 cases there. They will be back to normal soon, ”he writes.
Since then, the number of infections in the UK has increased to more than 150,000.
“I was wrong on this assumption,” he conceded. “And like I said, I could always be wrong with my assumptions here in Saskatchewan. “
Criticism 3: Dangerously doubting physical distance
On April 1 on Facebook, Buttigieg shared a newspaper column with the headline: “Maybe real data on the coronavirus will end this drastic blockage” and commented, writing: “Myself and my colleagues will change this silly policy that is motivated by fear and a lack of understanding of the numbers. ”
This feeling is reflected in his video of April 8.
He said that because the government has not recognized that most people have already been infected, his policy of physical isolation makes no sense and will erode the credibility of SHA.
“When we actually have a really bad pandemic, when we have to do social isolation, everyone is going to be” Oh, you’ve cried the wolf too often, “he said. “We do such a social isolation cock-up when we don’t need to have it in the first place. “
He said that this “experience of social isolation” could anger the public after the fact, leaving them to wonder why we “crippled our economy if all went well in the first place.”
Neudorf said it bothers him that Buttigieg publicly questions the merits of a physical distance based on an unverified assumption.
“The idea that you are trying to promote it before there is evidence of what seems to erode public confidence as a main consequence. This is what upsets me, “said Neudorf.
Neudorf said physical distance and isolation are “the blunt tools we have until you get the right therapies or prevention like vaccines.”
He said casting doubt on these measures can be deadly.
“When the consequences are, if you are wrong, hundreds to thousands more will die if the public changes what they are doing, so that should not be your first response,” said Neudorf.
Buttigieg said he hadn’t told anyone to ignore the rules of physical distancing.
He said he was just asking questions and continuing his research, which scientists are supposed to do.
Masri said that although Buttigieg did not directly tell people to flout the rules, they may have felt encouraged to do so based on his claims.
“There are words spoken, and then sometimes there are words understood,” said Masri.
In a Facebook article posted on April 12, Buttigieg responded to a response he received from SHA and other academics who accused him of trying to foment public dissent.
“I hate to reveal it to you.” I’m just a scientist. I have no influence on the audience, “he wrote.
“I’m not trying to wake up,” he told CBC News on April 13. “What I’m trying to do is tell people,” Talk to your MP, talk to your MP and ask them to watch this. [antibody testing]. “”
Muhajarine said that scientists have a significant influence on public opinion.
“We have to be very careful in what we say, because in times like this, especially when we have a medical and public health crisis, people turn to medical and public health experts for their advice and their advice. “
Critic 4: Unfounded attack on Saskatchewan health officials
In his April 8 video, Buttigieg said he doesn’t think the lack of testing in the province indicates a big conspiracy.
“The government is not trying to catch us,” he said.
He explained that the explanation was “gross nonsense”.
“Your leaders and the people you are in charge of implementing the health policy are not sufficiently qualified,” he said. “You have people with closed minds who are unable to think about first grade immunology. That’s all it’s a first-year immunology – who can test it all in the first place. “
Muhajarine said that Buttigieg’s comments are unwarranted and that he has full confidence in the scientists at SHA.
“They are second to none in this country,” he said. “It is a flimsy and false statement, and I frankly think it is out of the question for anyone to make this kind of claim right now. “
Asked about his comments by CBC on April 13, Buttigieg said he regretted the tone.
“This video was published angrily,” he said. “I don’t care about everyone. “
In a video posted on Facebook on April 14, he said ” [I] apologize to a number of people and groups. The University of Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Health Authority, people here at U of R who have watched this video, and they have been offended. They were injured …
“My intention is never to hurt, never to mislead. “
“Do what he is supposed to have done”
Before the explosion of this controversy, Buttigieg began recruiting potential subjects for a research study via Facebook – a method that is not considered scientifically valid because it does not produce a representative sample.
He believes that this controversy has scuttled these plans.
Buttigieg said he had heard through reverse channels that it was likely that his research proposal would not be approved through the Research Ethics Board (REB) process overseen by SHA and the U from R.
“What I was told is that if I submitted a request to the CER to perform these tests in the first place, because of the storm that I created, now apparently, it would be very unlikely that it be approved, “he said. told CBC News on April 13.
Despite this, he said, he put the issue of antibody testing on the radar.
“I think he has accomplished what he is supposed to have done, that is, to bring it to the fore and make it public,” he said.
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