Coronavirus: Scientist hits back after being quoted 'out of context' by anti-lockdown group

A Kiwi scientist says a group pushing for New Zealand to adopt a more Sweden-like approach to handling the coronavirus pandemic has taken her quotes out of context. 

And another cited by the Plan B group has also taken umbrage at how his comments have been used to create misleading headlines. 

Plan B, fronted by University of Auckland epidemiologist Simon Thornley, believes the lockdowns have been "even more harmful than the problem we're trying to solve" - that problem being the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken nearly 900,000 lives around the world and 24 in New Zealand.

They've proposed a more relaxed approach, such as that taken in Sweden, where measures like social distancing and gathering size limits were about the extent of their response. Sweden has suffered higher rates of infections and deaths than most of its neighbours and other developed nations, but the Plan B groups says in the long run it'll be better off, achieving herd immunity quicker and with less economic damage. 

New Zealand instead went for elimination, enacting one of the world's strictest lockdowns earlier this year, which was initially successful. After the virus reemerged in Auckland in August, a localised lockdown was enacted.

But unlike back in May, when it took several days of zero cases to convince the Government to lift restrictions, the city moved from level 3 to level 2 even as new cases of the virus were still being uncovered. 

"The Government's objective of eliminating COVID-19 is at an end, due to advice from the WHO, challenges of the Auckland lockdown, and plummeting cases and deaths internationally," the Plan B group said in a statement on Wednesday.

Included in the statement was apparent backing from two unlikely sources - a top World Health Organization expert and Kiwi scientist Michelle Dickinson.

"The WHO special envoy on coronavirus said on radio that while New Zealand had done well, it should now follow Sweden's model," Plan B said, referring to David Nabarro, who talked about the two countries' responses on Magic Talk last week. 

"You do everything possible to avoid the lockdowns, and in that regard, I think comparison with Sweden and with other countries that are able to get going again without major lockdowns, that's the right comparison and that's the goal of the future," Dr Nabarro said.

And speaking to radio station The Hits, Dr Dickinson - popularly known as 'Nanogirl' - said: "We're going with a different strategy now. Our last strategy was elimination - now it's almost learning to live with a virus."

But both have since said their quotes were taken out of context. Dr Nabarro said his comments should not have been taken as an endorsement of Sweden's approach, just that nations should find ways to "avoid re-introducing national lockdowns" where possible. 

"Because the origins of cases are unclear, it's right that there is strong action," he said in the original interview on Magic Talk, taking issue with a headline that implied he said New Zealand "should move to similar approach to COVID as Sweden". 

Michelle Dickinson with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard.
Michelle Dickinson with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard. Photo credit: Supplied

As for Dr Dickinson, Plan B left off the second half of her quote, which in full was: "We're going with a different strategy now. Our last strategy was elimination - now it's almost learning to live with a virus that we hope we know where it is and who's going to be affected. 

"Yeah, it's new times for us. Businesses need to open - so this is the time to help the economy, and it's time for us all to be careful. And it's time to remember that just because the levels have changed, it doesn't mean you have to go out and party."

Dr Dickinson expressed anger on her Twitter account.

"The plan B group have decided to take my words out of context and use their PR agency to try and imply that I think that people should be infected with COVID," she said.

"This is not true, I don't believe this and never have."

Dr Thornley told Newshub he "did not ever imply that she thought people should be infected with COVID".

"That is certainly not our position, and is unbecoming of a scientist of her stature to suggest that we would advocate this as a policy. We have always supported social distancing and mitigation measures, with strong infection control of vulnerable and elderly people.

"We do not believe that we quoted her out of context, and it is up to her to explain what she meant when she made that statement."

As for Dr Nabarro, Dr Thornley said much the same.

"It was clear that Dr Nabarro indicated that the Swedish model was a goal for country's future responses to the virus as we indicated in the press release. It is up to him to clarify exactly what he said."

Last week Dr Thornley tweeted support for protesters who gathered in downtown Auckland to demonstrate against the lockdown, most without masks.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in August said the quicker move to level 2 this time around was not an abandoning of the elimination strategy. 

"Our system is good. It is designed to keep us on track with our elimination strategy at level 2, in the scenario we now have. But it will only work if people follow the guidance."

Most scientists say achieving herd immunity through infection, rather than a vaccine, is a recipe for disaster. 

"The term 'herd immunity' was developed as a vaccination-related concept. Pursuing herd immunity for COVID-19 without vaccination is, as we are seeing, a strategy for 'herd deaths'," tweeted Jin Russell,  a developmental paediatrician and epidemiology PhD candidate at the University of Auckland.

Plan B says the " best approach is safe havens for those with vulnerable health conditions; robust personal hygiene; and tracing, tracking and isolation of cases, including serology tests".

This will allow New Zealand to 'flatten the curve' of infections whilst reopening the economy, Dr Thornley says.

University of Otago researchers found 548 fewer Kiwis died during the initial lockdown period than during the same time last year - the effect most pronounced in people aged under 30.