Coronavirus: Auckland lecturer claims COVID-19 too political and his 'Plan B' academic group is being ignored

An Auckland epidemiologist claims COVID-19 has become politicised and a group he helped found is continuing to receive little attention.

Dr Simon Thornley, a senior lecturer of epidemiology at the University of Auckland, is one of six founding members of the Plan B group, which advocates for a "balanced response to COVID-19", warning that New Zealand's lockdown was "unnecessary" and possibly "more harmful" that the pandemic itself. The group's website contains multiple posts questioning New Zealand's response to the pandemic.

But Dr Thornley is concerned he and his group have been largely left out of the national conversation, telling MagicTalk's Peter Williams on Wednesday that Plan B "haven't had a lot of attention". 

"There have been some calls from overseas media. A lot of calls from concerned New Zealanders just flabbergasted we have overreacted to such a virus that really is no more dangerous than a bad seasonal influenza."

The group's ideas have received pushback, though. Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles wrote a review of the group's ideas, published in The Spinoff. 

It called out Thornley for "cherry-picking" data and using Sweden as an example of what New Zealand should be doing, and then changing his example when the Swedish death toll began to skyrocket. 

"Interestingly this group has moved to using Australia as an exemplar of how to deal with COVID-19, instead of Sweden, which a fortnight ago was hailed as "steering a more sensible course through this turbulent time". Presumably because cases and deaths there are now increasing at an alarming rate, Sweden is not mentioned at all on the new Plan B website," wrote Dr Wiles in mid-April.

Newsroom also published a lengthy report on Plan B's claims, labelling its members as "contrarian academics".

When asked by Williams whether he believes COVID-19 has become politicised in the scientific community, Dr Thornley said it "certainly does look that way".

"The talk of eliminating the virus seems to be certainly a political goal. Looking around the world, the evidence that we can eliminate the virus seems very thin to me," Dr Thornley said.

He said there have been some "hasty redefinitions" of what elimination means. 

International media proclaimed recently that New Zealand had eliminated the virus following comments from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that New Zealand had "currently" eliminated it.

Dr Bloomfield clarified on Tuesday that elimination doesn't mean eradication and that elimination wasn't a "point in time", but a "sustained effort". Ardern has consistently said elimination doesn't mean zero cases, but a zero-tolerance for cases, something she noted back on April 20. Dr Bloomfield elaborated on that on Tuesday, saying it means only reporting a small number of cases per day, having a knowledge of where those originated and the ability to quickly identify them and stamp them out. 

In the wide-ranging interview with Williams, Dr Thornley spoke of how the virus' mortality rate may be far lower than reported when considering the likelihood more people may have had the illness than what is recorded and could be asymptomatic. 

For example, a CNBC article linked to on Plan B's website shows that after coronavirus antibody tests were conducted in New York, an estimated 13.9 percent of New Yorkers have had COVID-19, far more than what is recorded. 

However, death tolls may also underestimate the number of people who have been killed by the virus. Like in other countries, the United Kingdom's daily reports of deaths don't include those who died in the community.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the mortality rate for COVID-19 appears to be higher than influenza, but more data is necessary for it to be fully understood. In the United States, for example, between October 2019 and April 4, 2020, there were between 24,000 and 64,000 flu deaths, while there have been nearly 60,000 reported deaths from COVID-19 there since the start of February.

Dr Thornley told Williams that potentially too much emphasis has also been placed on looking at what has happened overseas. 

"One thing we have found which is very important for the transmission of the virus and in terms of overwhelming hospitals is that it is strongly associated with population-dense areas and in New Zealand we have a lot of things on our side when it comes to population density. We are much, much lower."

He said while case numbers may be high in densely populated places like New York, in states with densities similar to New Zealand, they are relatively low.