Well-known theologian Tom Wright has said it is “crazy” to ignore the science on coronavirus, calling it both “fascinating and worrying” that some Christians are reluctant to believe the scientific community’s expert opinion on the disease.
What Dr Wright is failing to acknowledge is that the scientific community does not have one expert opinion on coronavirus and there is no such thing as “the science”. There are instead a variety of viewpoints put forward by scientists, and different studies that point in different directions.
Consider, for example, how the government’s scientific advice has changed throughout the epidemic. On January 31, when the first two coronavirus cases were identified in the UK, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that the NHS was “extremely well-prepared for managing infections” and it was quickly trying to identify any close contacts the two patients had to prevent further spread. Public Health England claimed there was minimal risk of infection to either guests or staff at the Staycity hotel in York where the two patients had been staying.
Looking ahead, Whitty added: “A lot of people will end up with a relatively minor disease.” The small number who go on to be more seriously ill tend to develop respiratory problems which “will be dealt with as anyone else with a respiratory disease.”
Two weeks later, on February 13, Whitty elaborated further on this mitigation strategy: “At this point in time … we have a strategy that relies on four tactical aims. The first is to contain, the second is to delay, the third is to do the science and the research, and the fourth is to mitigate so that we can actually brace the NHS.”
A month later, on March 13, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance reiterated this plan for achieving “herd immunity”: “Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely. Also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease.”
Famously that all changed three days later on March 16, when Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, London published his predictions of a “catastrophic epidemic” of a quarter of a million dead if no further measures were taken. From then on it was all about suppression until there was an effective treatment or vaccine. How, though, can we be sure the government’s current scientific advice is correct, when it has suddenly undergone such a radical change?
Or take face masks – now to be made compulsory in shops and possibly elsewhere. On March 12, Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, advised the public against wearing face masks, saying they could “actually trap the virus” and cause the person wearing it to breathe it in.
It is important to recognise that this advice was not at this point the “consensus” of scientists, not because it was contrary to the consensus but because there was no consensus. There were and are a variety of studies saying different things, and a variety of views of scientists based on those studies and other evidence. Here, for example, are two views from the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, one in favour of face masks and the other against. It isn’t as simple as saying we should just believe and follow “the science”.
Neil Ferguson argued in June that “had we introduced lockdown measures a week earlier, we would have reduced the final death toll by at least a half.” This, he says, is because “we knew the epidemic was doubling every three to four days before lockdown interventions were introduced.”
Other scientists, however, such as Oxford’s Professor Carl Heneghan, have looked at the curve of UK coronavirus deaths and also at GP consultation data and to their eyes, rather than doubling every three to four days, they see infections peaking and beginning to decline well before the March 23 lockdown.
Some scientists have looked into why this might be. Last week, a team at Oxford University led by Professor Sunetra Gupta published a model showing that, when T-cell cross-immunity from other coronaviruses and other factors reducing susceptibility are taken into account, herd immunity can emerge at 20 per cent antibody rate or below. The researchers said this result “should be seen to reinforce” earlier findings from a team led by epidemiology specialist Gabriela Gomes. They said it helps to explain why some places are worse hit than others, and also suggest that “sufficient herd immunity may already be in place to substantially mitigate a potential second wave.”
Similarly last month, Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, who is working on a coronavirus vaccine, said: “There is probably background T-cell immunity in people before they see the coronavirus, and that may be relevant that many people get a pretty asymptomatic disease.”
Based on this science, is it really so “crazy” to suggest we should be getting back to normal a lot faster than we are? Some might urge caution, but it is important to recognise that this caution comes at a huge cost, both in human and economic terms, that arguably we can ill-afford.
In any case, the important point is there is not one “expert opinion” from the scientific community on the coronavirus, from which it is “crazy” to depart. There are many studies and many scientists with many opinions. As Christians and human beings gifted by God with reason and intellect, we have a responsibility to listen to all the evidence presented to us by those with technical expertise and make up our minds as best we can. Perhaps the craziest thing to do would be to suggest otherwise, out of misplaced faith in a non-existent authoritative scientific consensus.