Matthew Meyerson: Five COVID-19 theses

Dr. Matthew Meyerson wrote us yesterday to express his disagreement with the gist of a post or two on the site. “I think that you are underestimating the seriousness of this epidemic,” he stated, “and I would like to address this with you.” I asked Dr. Meyerson for permission to post his comments and to identify him as a Power Line reader. He has graciously granted his permission and authorized us to identify him as “a Power Line fan!” Holding both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees, Dr. Meyerson is professor of genetics and medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is also Director of the Center for Cancer Genomics at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Although his research is focused on cancer genetics, he is pitching in to help out in the present emergency with COVID-19 research. Dr. Meyerson writes:

1. COVID-19 is very highly transmissible. There are numerous news stories of a single event where probably a single infected individual caused dozens or hundreds of infections and numerous deaths: a choir practice in Washington state, a funeral in Georgia, a medical conference in Boston, a bridge tournament in El Paso county, Colorado. These are often not high-touch environments but the transmissibility has been very high.

2. COVID-19 causes severe illness in medical professionals and otherwise healthy young people. There are numerous examples of previously healthy young people, especially physicians, who are becoming severely ill or dying from COVID-19 infections. This almost never happens in other diseases. Now medical practice is dangerous, like serving as a soldier in a war. And the physicians and nurses and other health professionals not only get the disease, they spread the disease. Both the risk of illness and death, and the risk of spreading disease, have caused sheer terror in the medical and other health professions.

3. It is hard to compare deaths from COVID-19 to deaths from influenza. The data on influenza deaths are of limited value as we do not routinely test for influenza virus infection or other respiratory infections the way we do for COVID-19. We should, but we don’t. So we truly have no idea of how many people get influenza or other respiratory viral infections or how many die from it. The “pneumonia and influenza” heading in death records may represent a very broad mixture of diseases.

4. I do not believe that we are overreacting to COVID-19. We are seeing a highly transmissible disease (as high as 100-fold transmission rate, averaging 4-fold in Chinese data with the best estimates, but almost certainly higher) with a 1 percent to 2 percent mortality across large populations. That would suggest the possibility of 3 million to 6 million deaths in the US if we got to 300 million infections, and we could. We will likely have far fewer deaths than this, but a stronger, earlier response would have saved more. And a stronger response today could still save far more people than a more mild response.

5. Until we have treatments and vaccines, preventing transmission is the only way to go. Every blocked transmission could be a life saved—or many lives, given how transmissible the virus is. And every person-to-person interaction that we don’t have could be a new case of COVID19 prevented.

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