Everything I Got Wrong About COVID-19
Each of us, in our own way, was tested by the Coronavirus Pandemic. Some lost livelihoods, others lost loved ones, and all of us soldiered through as best we could.
As a science journalist, my unique challenge was to provide RealClearScience readers with the most up-to-date, evidenced information possible. During a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic of a never-before-seen infectious disease, this task proved difficult indeed.
Now that the pandemic seems to be abating in many parts of the world, a gradual victory won through the combination of infection-derived immunity and an arsenal of highly-effective vaccines, it seems proper to look back on my reporting over the whirlwind that was the previous 15 months. Did I properly contextualize the ever-evolving state of evidence? Did I, at times, say more than what scientists knew or the evidence suggested? Did I ever – unintentionally – misinform?
The news media is not immune to making mistakes. From my vantage point as a RealClear editor, I've certainly witnessed a fair share of failures during the pandemic. What I've seen less of are deliberate, visible efforts to learn from, and publicly correct those mistakes. For my small part in reporting on the COVID-19 Pandemic, I'm going to do that here. I read through everything I wrote about the pandemic, searching for any statement that evidence has since shown to be false. This exercise is an effort to set the record straight, and demonstrate that as evidence evolves, our thinking must change with it.
Here's everything that I got wrong over the last 15 months:
1. In my article, "To Speed Vaccine Development, Infect Me With the Coronavirus", published May 2020, I opined that human challenge trials – in which volunteers are deliberately infected with the coronavirus – might be necessary to ensure rapid testing of vaccines. Here, I was happy to be wrong. While I wrote that phase III trials of COVID vaccines could take "many months or even years", Moderna and Pfizer's late-stage clinical trials to test their mRNA vaccine candidates only needed about 14 weeks to return statistically significant results, an astounding feat.
2. In "How to Make Sure a Pandemic Like Covid-19 Never Happens Again", published April 2020, I wrote that the likeliest source of the coronavirus was a wet market in Wuhan, China, though I cautioned that the precise origin remains heavily debated. The latter part of that statement remains true, but the former does not. More recent evidence suggests that the wet market in Wuhan was probably not the site where the coronavirus jumped from animals to humans. The zoonotic spillover occurred somewhere else, and an infected human may have brought the virus to the market, where it spread like wildfire in the cramped, bustling space. The virus may also have accidentally leaked from the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology.
3. My piece "Is New York Really a Coronavirus Success Story?" published in late August 2020 contained two statements which were subsequently disproved. First, I suggested (based upon a study) that after its devastating initial pandemic wave, "the state – and especially New York City's metropolitan area – may be surprisingly close to herd immunity." A winter second wave demonstrated that to be incorrect, however, the highest seven-day average of deaths during the second wave was just a fifth of what it was during the first wave, suggesting a significant level of built-up immunity as well as drastic underreporting of cases in New York's initial wave.
Second, I shared the rosy opinion that herd immunity to the coronavirus could be reached when 20% to 50% of a population is infected or vaccinated. The latest data suggests that value is actually 70% or higher. The good news is that with 173.8 million Americans now vaccinated as of June 13th, we are getting there!
4. Perhaps my most regrettable statement appeared in the February 2020 article "Five Reasons You Don't Need to Panic About the COVID-19 Coronavirus". I wrote, "Given the population density in most other countries is significantly lower than in much of China, we can expect that the coronavirus will have a harder time spreading in much of the world." If China's official case numbers can be believed, the country has registered just 91,337 confirmed coronavirus infections among its 1.398 billion residents during the global pandemic. All other countries combined have reported more than 177 million as of June 14.