Are Anthony Fauci, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization our best guides through current events? Are we so confident in their opinionsmodels of COVID-19 spread that we are willing to risk whole economies? Is it possible that those authorities not only miscalculate, but see such a small piece of the overall biomedical/social picture that they are creating worse problems -- by shouting “fire” in a crowded world theater?
I have reason to believe that they will: As a postdoctoral fellow at Fauci’s NIAID from 2004-2009, and one of its few theoretical biologists, I found Dr. Fauci to be exceptionally knowledgeable about all aspects of virus biology and immunity. So it is difficult to understand why he and others are promoting models of COVID-19 spread which all but completely ignore the likelihood that most people will have powerful natural resistance against the virus (unless they are quite old, have hypertension, smoke, or have other pre-existing lung or immunological damage).
My guess, judging from historical precedent, is that Dr. Fauci and his colleagues are just plain afraid of what might happen, although we have no real data to make a prediction about what actually will happen. After all, they are human beings, and beings of a particular sort -- namely doctors. Although imagining all hospital beds suddenly filled with coughing people is something that terrifies them beyond belief -- as a few have confided to me -- doctors sometimes underestimate how much care they could provide to patients in their own homes, if it were absolutely necessary to do so.
Nonetheless, it is a matter of record that Dr. Fauci has tended to be somewhat unscientifically fatalistic about the threat posed by a new emerging virus: likely, that is why he and others predicted in 1984 that AIDS would spread through the heterosexual population -- despite already available knowledge that homosexual men, IV drug abusers, and hemophiliacs likely had defective antiviral resistance to start with -- with HIV acting as the last straw.
Perhaps the least known aspect of Fauci’s ascendancy to AIDS Czar in the 1980s is that it depended on completely derailing the main train of late 20th century medical thought, which was about to shift focus from viruses and bacteria to real human beings and their chronic noninfectious problems that make them susceptible to microbes in the first place. In fact, AIDS short-circuited the revolution in clinical research that was happening at several leading centers like Roswell Park Memorial Institute in the 1970s and early 80s.
In fact, one RPMI mathematician had garnered such deep knowledge of human resistance to disease that she predicted the AIDS epidemic itself -- 5 years before it began. Sister Rosalie Bertell had studied nonlymphatic leukemia in men as a way of getting a handle on to what extent X-ray exposure accelerates aging. She reported her discovery to Congress in 1978 that a subgroup of baby boomer men was aging 11.75 times faster than the general population and were heading for breakdown of their bodies’ immune-regulatory systems.
HIV, the human kaposi’s sarcoma virus, and most other viruses are more nearly the straw that breaks a human being’s overall physiological stability, including defenses against disease, more than a true “cause” of disease. Even in COVID-19 cases, mainly those people who are old, have weakened immune systems, are stressed, or smoke, are unable to fight it off. We need to know more about our natural resistancemechanisms to COVID-19 so that we can help nature with vaccines.
As much as I admire Tony Fauci as a national dad, who makes people feel safe during times of crisis, we need a national mom who will not only explain how best to boost our natural immunity but marshal the best scientific minds to create broader and more realistic mathematical models that include not just human innate resistance to viruses but effects of quarantining millions of people on their mental and physical health -- and on national economies.
As Stanford statistician John Ioannidis recently pointed out, we don’t have any reliable data upon which to make such a determination. I agree. But as a rough guesstimate, I would wager there is about a 1:100 chance that COVID-19 will overwhelm our hospital resources, and about a 1:1000 chance it will become a virus as lethal as HIV. Although those are real possibilities, it is an absolute certainty that Dr. Fauci’s, CDC’s, and WHO’s recommendations, if followed to the letter, will destroy economies and cause widespread mental and physical disease.
Brandon P. Reines’s academic appointments include adjunct assistant professor, Department of Biomedical Informatics, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Visiting Fellow, Department of Applied Mathematics, Australia National University