PANDA’s Response to Daily Maverick: Kung-Flu Panda: dodgy analytics or pandemic propaganda?

28 February 2021

From: Nick Hudson
Date: Friday, 5 February 2021 at 08:24
To: Rebecca Davis
Subject: Re: Media inquiry: Daily Maverick ~ Panda

RESPONSE TO QUESTIONS FROM DAILY MAVERICK 4 February 2020

PANDA received these questions at 14h38 on 4 February and was required to respond by 9am on 5 February (4 business hours). Some of the questions posed of PANDA relate to the non-PANDA activities of individuals based in Canada, the United States and New Zealand. Given the timezones, it was not possible to get responses from the individuals in question and we have responded based on publicly available information.

The article that our response is requested to premises a conspiracy between various groups around the world, of which PANDA is, by implication, one. The article is such a tawdry concoction of nonsense that it hardly warrants a response. It is not clear what the purpose of the alleged conspiracy is, but the conspiracy is supposedly coordinated by the former lead psychologist at Cambridge Analytica, who apparently advises these “pandemic disinformation platforms”. The article is authored by a journalist once described by Vanity Fair as engaging in “conspiracy mongering” and is published on a controversial “platform for freelance reporters and writers to produce fearless journalism not found in the mainstream media.” It seems its primary purpose with this article is to attack “hard right politicians” in the UK’s Conservative Party. Daily Maverick would be the first mainstream media publication to publish the conspiracy theory about PANDA and thereby the first to lend credence to the fanciful and defamatory statements about PANDA and its members made therein.

No evidence of any link between PANDA and Cambridge Analytica or its ex-employee is provided in the article. PANDA is not working with Cambridge Analytica or Patrick Fagan. The original article sought to make that link by noting that a PANDA member had once worked as a geologist for a multinational oil company that had allegedly used Cambridge Analytica’s services. This link has since been deleted without acknowledgement.

The article also premises “direct ties” between certain of the groups it references and far right politicians in the UK Conservative Party and Brexit Party. The article does not say that PANDA has ties to these politicians; it merely makes the implication – as conspiracy theories are wont to do. No evidence is given of such a link to PANDA or what motive PANDA might have for seeking such ties. The truth is that PANDA has no ties to either of these parties, nor any other political party for that matter. Amongst the hundreds of PANDA members nearly all political persuasions are represented, including many who are vehemently anti-Brexit.

The article suggests that there is a link between PANDA and other groups. No actual evidence of any such link is provided. In the style typical of conspiracy theories, the article tries to imply coordination between PANDA and these groups by association – A knows B, B knows C and C knows D therefore A knows D. To be clear, the allegations regarding PANDA and COVID-19 Assembly and PCRclaims.co.uk are baseless and untrue.

The suggestion that PANDA was established as a disinformation platform is patently ridiculous. Officials in the highest ranks of the MRC and NICD have witnessed the birth of PANDA, know some of its members and met and communicated with PANDA from its inception. It is as concerning that they publicly peddle this conspiracy theory as it would be if they began tweeting articles about nanobots and 5G. PANDA grew from its South African roots into a global organisation that has a presence in every corner of the world and counts hundreds of members predominantly from healthcare fields (doctors, healthcare academics, geneticists, epidemiologists, paediatricians, virologists, psychologists etc), but also from other professions including data scientists, engineers, actuaries, lawyers and economists. PANDA’s approach is premised on the fact that COVID-19 is not just a medical challenge. We believe that the patient must be seen as a sum of its parts, as medical ethics require, and that policies should not focus on the impact of one disease alone. PANDA is guided by a scientific advisory board that consists of some of the finest medical minds on the planet including professors of medicine at Harvard, Stanford, Johannes Gutenberg, Nottingham and Oxford Universities as well as a Nobel prize laureate and a former chief scientist and Vice President at Pfizer.

PANDA was formed by private individuals who noticed that a lockdown was being imposed in South Africa without any impact assessment having been done. PANDA’s principle observation was that before a decision could be taken to impose lockdown measures designed to save lives, the government needed to know how many lives would be impacted as a direct result of the lockdown. No one was modelling the impact of the lockdown measures and there was little recognition that the measures would even have any impact on lives and livelihoods. Our initial report in May 2020 attempted to quantify the impact of increased poverty on life years lost and the results concluded that the total loss of life years from lockdown would dwarf the potential COVID-19 life years potentially saved by a lockdown. We did not try to redo the work of those who had modelled the COVID-19 deaths. We relied on their data. We commented though that the later outbreak in South Africa gave us the benefit of seeing what had happened elsewhere in the world and we noted what has now proven to be true – that the initial estimates of first wave COVID deaths were overwrought.

We were then challenged to publicise our model, which we did, and that model has proved to be the most accurate prediction of the confirmed deaths in the first wave produced in South Africa. Our separate model for the second wave has to date accurately predicted the peak and amplitude of the second wave.

It would seem that certain elements of the Press believe that dissenting views must be silenced because the virus can only be beaten if everyone falls in line behind government’s strategy. As such, labels like “Anti-vaxxer”, “COVID denier”, “pandemic disinformation platform” are sometimes applied to PANDA and individual members, their employers and professional bodies are frequently singled out for embarrassment in the hopes that PANDA members will be pressured to keep quiet. PANDA members are ordinary people volunteering their time to help bring balance to the debate and frequently, efforts to bully individuals within the organisation are successful. Sectors of society celebrate these “victories” without considering the damage being done to science and free speech. Many PANDA members have had to leave the organisation as a result of the pressure brought to bear on them personally or through their employers. The Press has a lot to answer for in this regard.

The article in question is defamatory and slanderous. It lists individual members of PANDA and their employers for no other purpose than to put pressure on them. It makes allegations that are unsupported. It tries to imply guilt by association. The fanciful idea that PANDA is part of a conspiracy to spread false information designed to harm people is patently ridiculous. We place the Daily Maverick on notice that the allegations made in the article are false, that the Daily Maverick has no evidence other than the article to support the allegations made, that the listing of the details of individual members of PANDA has no apparent purpose and that repeating the false allegations may cause damages to be suffered by PANDA and the individuals mentioned in the article. It is our firm belief that giving credence to these allegations by publishing them is not only beneath the usually high standards of the Daily Maverick, but will expose the paper to claims.

We turn now to the specific questions posed.

  1. The article reports that PANDA’s team includes “Samantha Bailey, a doctor in New Zealand who spreads fake news about PCR tests”. Your comment on this?

Dr Bailey has not made any statements on behalf of PANDA. No reference is given for the statements that are allegedly “fake news”. We have therefore relied on Press reports. Dr Bailey was criticised in the New Zealand Press for saying that medical professionals were applying the rt-PCR tests inaccurately. On 20 January 2021, the WHO published an information notice aimed at addressing inaccurate application of the rt-PCR test by medical professionals. We also understand that Dr Bailey was criticised for saying that the rt-PCR test traces pieces of genetic material rather than the whole virus genome. This statement is correct.

Dr Bailey is not alone in her criticism of the rt-PCR test. A review conducted by the New York Times of three sets of coronavirus testing data from Massachusetts, Nevada, and New York found that up to 90% of patients who tested positive for the virus were what scientists refer to as ‘cold positives’ (i.e. they had very, very low viral loads, were not ill, not symptomatic, not going to become symptomatic and, most importantly, were not able to infect others). The New York Times reported that if the rt-PCR test was run at recommended cycle thresholds, up to 90% of ‘cases’ would have been negative.

Courts in a number of jurisdictions have criticised the rt-PCR test. The Lisbon Court of Appeal found that “the rt-PCR test is in and of itself unable to determine beyond reasonable doubt that positivity in fact corresponds to infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, for several reasons, among which two are paramount: the test’s reliability depends on the number of cycles used; the test’s reliability depends on the viral load present.” “Given the scientific doubt which exists about the reliability of the rt-PCR tests, given the lack of information concerning the tests’ analytical parameters, and in the absence of a physician’s diagnosis supporting the existence of infection or risk, there is no way that this Court would ever be able to determine whether C was indeed a carrier of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or whether A, B and D had been at a high risk of exposure to it.”

  1. The article reports that Panda’s scientific advisory board includes “Donald Trump’s former Covid-19 advisor Dr Scott Atlas, who systematically spread misinformation about the pandemic that was even condemned by the Stanford faculty”. Your comment on this?

Dr Scott Atlas is one of nine members of PANDA’s scientific advisory board which includes Jay Bhattacharya, Sucharit Bhakdi, Sunetra Gupta, Michael Levitt, Scott Jensen, Martin Kulldorf, Ellen Townsend and Michael Yeadon – all respected experts in their fields. As a collective, they provide PANDA with access to expertise that is unrivalled in other international organisations and indeed certain governments. https://www.pandata.org/scientific-advisory-board/

Dr. Atlas is a world-renowned physician and scholar of advanced medical care and health care policy. He was Professor and Chief of Neuroradiology at Stanford University Medical Center for 14 years before his appointment at the Hoover Institution. From July 2020 to December 2020, he served as a Special Advisor to the President of the United States and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. It goes without saying that someone of Dr Atlas’ profile will have been subject to criticism over the course of a long, distinguished career. Dr Atlas responded to the allegations made as follows: “In my 15 years of health policy work at the Hoover Institution, I have used my 25-year background in medical science and tertiary care clinical medicine to research and formulate policy solutions in health care. Since my appointment as special advisor to the president, I have used that unique background, critical thinking and logic to present the president with the broadest possible views on policy, so that he has the best science-based, fact-driven data available to combat this devastating pandemic and make decisions to save lives and best benefit the American people. To claim otherwise is an embarrassment to those who do so.”

  1. The article reports that in 2020 PANDA published a report by “Dennis Rancourt, a disgraced physics professor who had been sacked by the University of Ottawa”. Your comment on this?

Dr Denis Rancourt (note correct spelling) is a member of PANDA. We are not aware of any report by Dr Rancourt published by PANDA in 2020. In 2021, PANDA published an article titled, “Review update of recent science relating to COVID-19 policy,” by Doctor Rancourt with the note that his work was being reproduced on the website “because it has been de-platformed and PANDA feels that this review raises interesting perspectives.” Our decision to publish this article is consistent with PANDA’s belief that open debate is a prerequisite for science to thrive.

Dr Rancourt’s case raises similar issues of academic freedom to those raised in relation to Dr Atlas. Dr Rancourt was dismissed from his tenured full professorship at the University of Ottawa in 2009, in a major academic freedom battle about grading. The battle is well documented in legal rulings and media articles, including the New York Times. It took 10 years of litigation to resolve the matter in a global settlement that was to everyone’s satisfaction. A good short summary of the most controversial aspects of the legal saga is provided here, with three important attached letters:

https://archive.org/details/POST20180108DGRLetterToPresidentJacquesFremont5All/

  1. The article suggests that PANDA’s anti-lockdown lobbying efforts “appear to have played a role in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to lift restrictions from mid August”. Your comment on this?

President Ramaphosa never responded to our correspondence. We do hope that our work influenced the lifting of restrictions that were causing damage to lives and livelihoods that could not be justified by the impact of the virus in mid-August 2020. At the time, it was clear that South Africa had passed the peak of first wave infections, that the lockdown had not served the purpose of flattening the curve and calls for a reduction in lockdown stringency were coming from all corners of society, including government’s own Ministerial Advisory Committee, industry, civil society and academia. No doubt the decision by the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (the President does not make these decisions) to reduce the lockdown to level 2 was influenced by all of these groups and not PANDA alone, although it is pleasing to receive acknowledgement of our role in terminating devastating policies that contradicted all of pre-COVID science and which have been shown in dozens of papers to have been pointless as virus mitigation exercises.

  1. The article reports that PANDA is part of the Covid-19 Assembly, a coalition of anti-lockdown groups and pandemic denialists, which is advised by one of the leading figures behind Cambridge Analytica. Your comment on this?

PANDA is not part of the COVID-19 Assembly and cannot therefore comment on this conspiracy theory.

  1. PANDA’s predictions as to the likely number of Covid-19 deaths in South Africa have been proved to be very wrong, particularly when compared to the MRC’s excess death report. Your comment on this?

The MRC has never claimed that all excess deaths are COVID deaths. After retweeting an article suggesting that all excess deaths were COVID deaths, Dr Tom Moultrie, who has worked for the NICD and MRC, agreed that the share of excess deaths that were COVID deaths was unknown and that he was wrong to have retweeted the article. The South African COVID-19 Modelling Consortium (“SACMC”), who initially estimated 351,000 COVID deaths has made an assumption that 80% of excess deaths are

COVID-19 deaths (5 September SACMC report, page 5). This is an assumption only and comes from a consortium that is hardly neutral.

We have written extensively on the problems with the narrative that all excess deaths are COVID-19 deaths. Suffice it to say that whilst some COVID-19 deaths have certainly not been recorded, we do not at this stage accept the argument that the restrictions imposed on healthcare services (including the massive reduction in attendance at HIV and TB clinics), the psychological impact of lockdowns and the poverty resulting from the lockdowns has not caused any deaths. This is a necessary consequence of saying all excess deaths are COVID-19 deaths.

PANDA’s COVID-19 mortality model (like almost all others produced for South Africa) only modelled confirmed COVID-19 deaths. None of the models produced for South Africa modelled anything other than the first wave. PANDA’s model was no different.

On 5 May 2020, PANDA estimated that there would be 20,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in South Africa during the first wave. Around this time, other models, including those used by Government, predicted 89,000 to 351,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the first wave. From June, PANDA produced a model that was published on our website daily. This model was updated over time and from the end of July 2020, it consistently estimated around 20,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths for South Africa for the first wave. The estimate was validated daily using the National Department of Health confirmed COVID-19 deaths as published on www.sacoronavirus.co.za. The final government model was eventually amended, and published on 5 September 2020, to estimate 16,000 confirmed COVID-19 hospital deaths, equivalent to 20,000 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, which brought it in line with PANDA’s model and reality. PANDA produced a model for the second wave which has closely tracked reality. On our website, we also tracked the performance of other models against reality.

The allegation that PANDA’s prediction for COVID deaths has proved to be “very wrong” is entirely without merit. PANDA’s models were in fact by far the most accurate models produced for modelling confirmed COVID-19 deaths in South Africa and actual numbers from the NDoH were published daily against our projections on our website in a transparent way.

  1. Do you have any regrets about Panda’s anti-lockdown lobbying, together with your downplaying of the likely fatalities from Covid-19?

When PANDA produced its years of life lost paper, the phrase “lives and livelihoods” was not part of the discourse. There was little recognition at the time that there was a cost associated with lockdowns. PANDA is proud of the work that we did to highlight the need to acknowledge the cost of lockdown, to measure it and to implement measures that focus protection on those most at risk and reduce the harm suffered as a result of lockdown, especially by the most vulnerable in society. We remain concerned that elements of society (notably certain journalists, academics and politicians) whose incomes are largely unaffected by lockdown, whose children are educated via Zoom and whose food and services are delivered by those who cannot afford to isolate, seek to entrench their privilege by silencing those who speak out.

PANDA is a non-profit volunteer organisation. The suggestion that we have influence over policy must not be overstated. Government’s obligation is to listen to all sides and to take decisions in the public interest, considering all facets of the problem. We believe that government has a duty to publish a cost benefit analysis before implementing severe and wide-impacting policies. It is disappointing that the fourth estate has not been asking these questions themselves and has left a vacuum which PANDA has stepped in to fill. We also believe that “hit-job” conspiracy-peddling articles like the one the Daily Maverick is giving publicity to in this case have one aim only and that is to silence dissenting views.

PANDA has of course not been right about everything and as our modelling exercise proves, when mistakes are made, we admit them and try to correct them as soon as we can. Making mistakes is of course not unique to PANDA and given the influence we have on people’s lives, by comparison with Government, the NICD, MRC and SACMC, the consequences of our mistakes do not carry the same impact. South Africa went into a devastating initial hard lockdown on the back of a model produced for Government by SACEMA that overstated confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the first wave by more than 17 times and yet, by comparison with PANDA, they receive almost no criticism whatsoever. It begs the question what the true purpose is of criticising PANDA’s mistakes.

It is PANDA’s view that lockdowns serve to increase COVID mortality by shifting the disease burden onto the vulnerable. We have remained firmly of the opinion, from the start, that the failure of government to demonstrate any form of cost-benefit analysis before pursuing policies that reject a hundred years of public health wisdom is ill-advised, especially in light of the fact that the emergent data do not support the idea that lockdowns yield the benefits they were supposed to.

PANDA are not COVID deniers. We believe that COVID-19 is a serious disease that requires urgent attention. PANDA are not anti-vaxxers. We believe that vaccines have great potential in a focused protection strategy. PANDA is politically agnostic. Our view that a holistic solution must be sought to the challenges this virus poses is one that finds favour with people of varying political persuasions.

 

From: Nick Hudson
Date: Friday, 19 February 2021 at 14:27
To: Rebecca Davis
Subject: Re: Follow-up questions from Daily Maverick

Dear Rebecca

Here is PANDA’s response:

Just two follow-up questions to our last batch please Nick. Last time we asked you about whether Panda had links to (a) Covid-19 Assembly and (b) PCRlinks.co.uk, and you responded that this suggestion was “baseless and untrue”.

The bylinetimes blog is a story about a conspiracy between PANDA and other organisations coordinated by Patrick Fagan, previously of Cambridge Analytica, to spread misinformation and cause harm. This story is patently and demonstrably false. It is being peddled by a controversial blog. It is written by a journalist known for peddling conspiracy theories.

You originally asked us to comment on whether or not “Panda is part of the Covid-19 Assembly”. We stated that we are not part of the COVID-19 Assembly. You now seek to broaden the question to ask whether there are any links between PANDA and COVID-19 Assembly and PCRClaims. You now go so far as to suggest that the alleged link is evidenced by PANDA’s website being listed by PCRClaims as a “useful link”. These are the kinds of pseudo facts that are characteristic of conspiracy theories. We firmly believe that Daily Maverick is at risk of breaching its ethical obligations by pursuing the narrative of the bylinetimes blog and by giving credence to the obviously false claim made in their article that there is a link between Patrick Fagan/Cambridge Analytica and PANDA. Daily Maverick is already on notice that giving publicity to such patently false statements may result in harm being suffered by the individuals mentioned in the article and by PANDA itself.

  1. But Covid-19 Assembly’s website states: “We are working with organisations such as Pandata19.orgto help distribute accurate information”, with a link to Panda’s website (see screenshot attached).

Your comment please?

Patrick Fagan is not listed as an advisor to COVID-19 Assembly.

Your new question as to whether we have any links to COVID-19 Assembly is a much broader one than the original question posed and plays into the conspiracy theory approach. PANDA is a large organisation and our members are free to express their personal views and to provide advice to other organisations in their personal capacities. For example, Professor Martin Kulldorff is on the Scientific Advisory Board (“SAB”) of PANDA and he is also on the advisory board of COVID-19 Assembly and a Professor at Harvard Medical School. This does not imply any coordination between Harvard University and COVID-19 Assembly or indeed between PANDA and COVID-19 Assembly. If organisations can be said to be working together through the advisors they use, practically any entity could be linked to another.

We note that COVID-19 Assembly states that they are working with “Pandata19.org” to help distribute accurate information. It is not clear to us what that statement means or why they link to an old URL previously used by PANDA. We do not, in principle, have an issue with working with other organisations, but PANDA is not in fact working with COVID-19 Assembly and we will take this up with them.

  1. PCRlinks (a) lists Panda’s website under ‘Useful websites’ (see screenshot) and (b) lists Nick Hudson as its spokesperson on economics in an archived web page (see screenshot).

Your comment please?

We trust that Daily Maverick is not suggesting that the listing of website as a useful link implies coordination between the lister and the listee.

Your statement about the content of the PCRclaims website is not true. Neither of the screenshots you provided represent the current state of that website.

Your suggestion is that because Mr Hudson was once listed as an advisor to PCRClaims and Patrick Fagan was once also listed as an advisor to PCRClaims, this is evidence that PANDA and PCRClaims are working together. That suggestion merits no response. Suffice it to say that individual members of PANDA are entitled to provide advice to other organisations in their personal capacities and this does not, outside of the realm of conspiracy theories, imply coordination between the organisations. Whilst we see no issue in PANDA connecting with other groups, the fact is that PANDA is not working with PCR Claims. Mr Hudson has advised PANDA that he has had no contact with PCRClaims for months and never acted in any capacity for the organisation, conducted any work for it or represented it in any fashion.

Kind regards

Nick Hudson

Co-ordinator

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