The suppression of science in a deadly pandemic

6th December 2020 / United Kingdom
The suppression of science in a deadly pandemic

Regular readers of TruePublica will know the distinction between those who are asking legitimate questions about the Covid crisis and the soon to be distributed vaccine and people who look to exploit the situation by spreading false narratives. One reader, rightly pointed out to me that not all ant-vaxxers’ were conspiracy theorists. And whilst that is true, it is true to say that the anti-vaccine movement has been scientifically proven to be on the wrong side of the argument historically. In the case of this crisis, the anti-vaxxers are not asking questions that seek the facts. The people asking questions are those who are, or not, persuaded by them. However, with populist leaders like Donald Trump (thankfully almost gone from office) and Boris Johnson – the type of people who lie their way into office – it’s a big ask to convince the population to simply accept and believe what they are saying when it comes to a vaccine that has had just one-tenth to developmental time to get to market. Part of the problem, especially in the midst of this pandemic is the involvement of government in the science and the effect they have with their meddling for political gain.

A very interesting piece in the British Medical Journal was published about three weeks ago, written by its executive editor Kamran Abbasi. In brief, it says this – when good science is suppressed by the ‘medical-political complex’, people die.

The report delves into how politicians and governments are suppressing science. It says that they do so in the public interest, they say, to accelerate the availability of diagnostics and treatments. Politicians and governments want to take the credit and so they support innovation, to bring products to market at unprecedented speed, but it is true to say that the greatest deceptions are founded in a grain of truth and in this case, the underlying behaviour of both Boris Johnson and his government is troubling.

It appears that science is being suppressed for political and financial gain. Perhaps that much doesn’t surprise us much, but Abbasi reminds us that Covid-19 has unleashed state corruption on a grand scale, and it has been harmful to public health. He says that politicians and industry are responsible for this “opportunistic embezzlement” as he puts it –  so too are scientists and health experts. The pandemic has revealed how the medical-political complex can be manipulated in an emergency—a time when it is even more important to safeguard science.

The BMJ article provides examples of suppression of science or scientists. It lambasts the government for its interventions to manipulate the messaging for its own advantage:

“First, the membership, research, and deliberations of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) were initially secret until a press leak forced transparency. The leak revealed inappropriate involvement of government advisers in SAGE while exposing under-representation from public health, clinical care, women, and ethnic minorities. Indeed, the government was also recently ordered to release a 2016 report on deficiencies in pandemic preparedness, Operation Cygnus, following a verdict from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Next, a Public Health England report on covid-19 and inequalities. The report’s publication was delayed by England’s Department of Health; a section on ethnic minorities was initially withheld and then, following a public outcry, was published as part of a follow-up report. Authors from Public Health England were instructed not to talk to the media.

Then, on 15 October, the editor of the Lancet complained that an author of a research paper, a UK government scientist, was blocked by the government from speaking to media because of a “difficult political landscape.”

Now, a new example concerns the controversy over point-of-care antibody testing for covid-19. The prime minister’s Operation Moonshot depends on immediate and wide availability of accurate rapid diagnostic tests. It also depends on the questionable logic of mass screening—currently being trialled in Liverpool with a suboptimal PCR test. The incident relates to research published this week by The BMJ, which finds that the government procured an antibody test that in real-world tests falls well short of performance claims made by its manufacturers. Researchers from Public Health England and collaborating institutions sensibly pushed to publish their study findings before the government committed to buying a million of these tests but were blocked by the health department and the prime minister’s office. Why was it important to procure this product without due scrutiny? Prior publication of research on a preprint server or a government website is compatible with The BMJ’s publication policy. As if to prove a point, Public Health England then unsuccessfully attempted to block The BMJ’s press release about the research paper.”


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In the best interests of who?

What this all says is the government is not acting in the best interests of the country, of its people but for itself. Politicians often claim to follow the science, but that is a misleading oversimplification.

Abbasi takes the view that science, as he says, is rarely absolute. It rarely applies to every setting or every population. “It doesn’t make sense to slavishly follow science or evidence. A better approach is for politicians, the publicly appointed decision-makers, to be informed and guided by science when they decide policy for their public. But even that approach retains public and professional trust only if science is available for scrutiny and free of political interference, and if the system is transparent and not compromised by conflicts of interest.”

The interesting point to note here, especially for those asking questions about vaccines is this.  Does the UK’s pandemic response rely too heavily on scientists and other government appointees with worrying competing interests, including shareholdings in companies that manufacture covid-19 diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines? “Government appointees are able to ignore or cherry-pick science – another form of misuse – and indulge in anti-competitive practices that favour their own products and those of friends and associates,” Abbasi says.

If the public does not have access to, or full disclosure of competing interests from government, politicians, scientific advisers, and appointees, such as the heads of test and trace and vaccine delivery – then trust will be a casualty.  And it’s not just who but how. Full transparency about decision-making systems, processes, and knowing who is accountable for what is also needed.

As Abbasi says – “Once transparency and accountability are established as norms, individuals employed by government should ideally only work in areas unrelated to their competing interests. Expertise is possible without competing interests. If such a strict rule becomes impractical, minimum good practice is that people with competing interests must not be involved in decisions on products and policies in which they have a financial interest.

Governments and industry must also stop announcing critical science policy by press release. Such ill-judged moves leave science, the media, and stock markets vulnerable to manipulation. Clear, open, and advance publication of the scientific basis for policy, procurements, and wonder drugs is a fundamental requirement.”

Whilst we all understand that in the circumstances of a deadly pandemic, the stakes are high for politicians, scientific advisers, and government appointees – it does not absolve them of their responsibilities. Their careers and bank balances may hinge on the decisions that they make, but they have a higher responsibility and duty to the public. Science is a public good but it doesn’t need to be followed blindly. However, it does need to be fairly considered.

“Importantly, suppressing science, whether by delaying publication, cherry-picking favourable research, or gagging scientists, is a danger to public health, causing deaths by exposing people to unsafe or ineffective interventions and preventing them from benefiting from better ones. When entangled with commercial decisions it is also maladministration of taxpayers’ money.”

Abbasi also makes another important point that I think we all agree with. “Politicisation of science was enthusiastically deployed by some of history’s worst autocrats and dictators, and it is now regrettably commonplace in democracies. The medical-political complex tends towards suppression of science to aggrandise and enrich those in power. And, as the powerful become more successful, richer, and further intoxicated with power, the inconvenient truths of science are suppressed.”

This is how Abbasi comes to the conclusion that “when good science is suppressed, people die.”

One final note. This article is not meant to instil a sense of fear about the vaccine or to cast doubt on its efficacy – it is up to you what you decide. Perhaps this 30-minute podcast will help with that decision.


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