- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 28, 2020

The British epidemiologist whose predictions about how coronavirus might impact the U.K. is pushing back against the notion he radically changed his figures, a public relations fight in which he has enlisted allies in the scientific community.

Dr. Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College London reiterated Friday that his figure for potentially more than 500,000 deaths from the virus in the U.K. is unchanged, although that figure is tied to a nightmare scenario in which no mitigation steps are taken against the virus’ spread.

Given the virus-aversion policies that have been adopted, Mr. Ferguson told Parliament the actual death figures for the U.K. would most likely be less than 20,000, and said that is consistent with previous studies.

All of the figures are derived from computer models in which Mr. Ferguson and his colleagues control the inputs, but the 500,000 figure - along with another prediction that a partial implementation of proper mitigation policies could still leave some 250,000 dead - alarmed the world when they were widely publicized.

Mr. Ferguson and his colleague say the media conflated various models, or confused speculation with conclusions, in their reporting on his work and a study at Oxford University that looked at various infection rates.

“The study did emphatically not conclude (even tentatively) that half of the UK population already had coronavirus,” wrote Kris De Meyer, who described himself as a “neuroscientist and researcher in good practices in Science Communication” in an email to The Washington Times. “All it did was explore 4 different theoretical model scenarios, and show that all of them could be matched to real-life data in the UK and Italy.”

In another model scenario, Oxford put the infected percentage of the population at 5%,

The 500,000+ figure was widely reported and used to justify stringent virus-avoidance measures that some criticized as too severe or economically unsustainable but that many consider sensible.

While the implausible and alarming number was always the high end of a model, there was little pushback against them until this week when Mr. Ferguson again spoke to Parliament and highlighted the “under 20,000” figure in light of steps like social distancing the government has stressed.

He and his colleagues dispute the notion Mr. Ferguson offered any new hypothesis or in any way discredited his original ones.

“His position since then has been that, if we do nothing 500,000 will die, if we pursue mitigation, 260,000 will die, but that suppression could limit it to 20,000,” freelance science writer S.J. Makin wrote in an email. “All he is saying now is that now that we have intensive social distancing measures in place, he believes we will keep the death toll within that much lower figure.”

Mr. Ferguson’s original testimony also included dire warnings that the National Health Service’s intensive care units would be overwhelmed by coronavirus patients and unable to cope with the surge.

Now that European data and others shows that infection is likely much more widespread, meaning the percentages of those who may need hospitalization and ventilation are much lower, Mr. Ferguson has said the ICU situation should become full in spots but that it can withstand the situation.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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