Coronavirus: Expert immunologist rips into 'offensive' COVID-19 deniers after Billy Te Kahika lockdown protest

A leading Kiwi health academic has hit out at people who do their own "research" and conclude the COVID-19 pandemic isn't real, saying it's "offensive" to those who've spent their lives in the pursuit of the truth. 

Dozens of people gathered outside Parliament on Thursday protesting various causes, including COVID-19 lockdowns, the Chinese Communist Party, 1080 poison, the media, vaccines, masks, fluoridated water and the United Nations. 

With New Zealand one of the few nations at present where people have complete freedom of movement with little fear of infection, some reports noted there were more people socialising and having lunch on Parliament's lawn than protesting.  

One speaker at the event spoke of a "stench of treason", referred to the Labour Party as communists and the National Party as fascist, accused former Prime Minister David Lange of staging a coup Jim Bolger of selling NZ into communism. Signs claimed things like "masks kill lives", called the pandemic a "plandemic" or a "scam". 

But the main act was Public Party leader Billy Te Kahika, who made his usual false claims about the virus' mortality, praised local scientists (the Plan B group) who urged New Zealand adopt the lockdown-free Sweden response model, called for the death of a German economist called Klaus Schwab, called microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles a "purple pink-haired communist", ridiculed experts who back vaccines, falsely claimed the new strains from the UK and South Africa aren't more dangerous, and that five-year-olds are being taught about masturbation in schools. 

Anna Brooks, an immunologist at the University of Auckland's Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, was shocked. She told Magic Talk on Friday morning it was "somewhat frustrating" to see people taking advantage of New Zealand's COVID-free status to spread misinformation about the disease, which has a confirmed death toll just shy of 2 million.

"To me it screams 'New Zealand privilege'. Are people really closed-minded and just don't believe anything now? It's very disheartening hearing that lack of compassion for what's happening in other countries," she told host Roman Travers.  

"These so-called experts say 'I've done my research'. They open up Google and they do their 'research'. For those of us who have dedicated our lives to research, it's somewhat offensive, you know? We don't sit on Google and go looking for things for or against our arguments. We actually spend many, many years dedicated to understanding what research means and how to perform it objectively."

Plan B? 

Dr Brooks mentioned a caller to the station on Thursday who, when presented with the facts of what's happening in hard-hit places like California and the UK, replied: "Oh yeah, but is that fact?"

"People just don't want to believe anything because they can find on their internet a credible person - quite often they are a medically trained doctor or a scientist - who has decided that they want to take a different narrative and tell everyone that what they're hearing and seeing is false information." 

In New Zealand that was the Plan B group, who claimed early on lockdowns don't work. 

"I believe that this has been an overreaction and that locking down New Zealand for too long is going to create more problems than we're going to solve," University of Auckland epidemiologist Simon Thornley told Newshub in April. 

Just weeks later New Zealand was back at alert level 1, the lockdown having eliminated local transmission of the virus - albeit at great economic cost. New Zealand's zero-tolerance strategy has since earned praise from the World Health Organization, along with other nations such as Taiwan, Vietnam and Australia.

In October, Plan B said the elimination strategy wasn't needed because of "plummeting cases and deaths internationally" - daily deaths now, in January 2021, are three times higher than they were in October. Plan B has since removed the statement from its website

Dr Thornley in August said the Swedish approach of voluntary restrictions is "the best approach". Sweden, with a population about twice that of New Zealand, has suffered more than 10,000 deaths. New Zealand has 25, and currently has fewer restrictions on movement, business and socialising, and has had an economic bounce-back better than most other countries. 

"We are extremely privileged here and I think we have to remind ourselves not to forget that," said Dr Brooks. "We don't have COVID-19 in our community and we should be very grateful to the leading scientists - especially Michael Baker's elimination strategy. That is why we're going about our lives here. I think it's just a time here to look at ourselves - if people are thinking this is not real, really? There is so much devastation going on right now." 

Dr Baker was one of the scientists who realised early on that New Zealand's healthcare system didn't have the capacity to handle an uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19, based on what was happening at the time in places like the UK and Italy. Other academics found even a controlled spread would hit vulnerable communities, such as Māori and Pacific Islanders, much harder than others. 

Michael Baker.
Michael Baker. Photo credit: RNZ

Not to mention the devastating impact the disease might have on people who survive. 

"People still like to use that narrative '99 percent of people recover'. That is not the point... People still think this is something that old people die of - yes, that's where the mortality is but we still don't have a good handle on morbidity either," said Dr Brooks. 

"Again, the naysayers and those who have done their 'research' and used Google, they're not thinking about all those people who are getting COVID-19 and not recovering for months afterwards - the long-haulers, the long COVID sufferers. This virus can have lasting effects on your heart, your immune system. You can feel completely fatigued for months on end. There's still so much research that needs to be done in that space."

Avoiding another lockdown

In his speech, Te Kahika said the WHO has recommended against using lockdowns. While this is true, it leaves out the context - that it should be avoided as a "primary method of control", not abandoned altogether. 

"The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganise, regroup, rebalance your resources; protect your health workers who are exhausted," special envoy on COVID-19 David Nabarro said. 

This is essentially what happened in August, when local transmission was picked up in Auckland. With the cases' origin unknown, the city went to alert level 3 to give health officials a chance of isolating everyone affected until they'd figured out where it came from, or the transmission chain broken. 

"It's very disheartening to hear people so vehemently think a lockdown is dangerous when we're seeing the absolute opposite internationally," said Dr Brooks.

A lockdown protest last year.
A lockdown protest last year. Photo credit: Newshub.

Widespread use of the COVID Tracer app could prevent an alert level 3 or 4 being required if there's another outbreak - if everyone exposed can be traced quickly, life can go on as close to normal for everyone else. 

"We can't afford to get complacent - especially given the increasing numbers of new cases we're seeing in many other countries," Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said earlier this week. 

"We've seen how quickly the virus can spread. We all have a responsibility to support contact tracing by keeping a record of our movements, either with the app or by another method such as a diary."

'It's happening and it's devastating'

The more infectious strains of the virus haven't been found to be more deadly than the original, but as they're able to spread more easily, their overall toll in terms of fatalities and morbidity will be higher if left to spread. 

"Why there's so much negativity that we're doing the wrong thing is beyond me, and it's very frustrating," said Dr Brooks. 

"If anything I thought the fact it's so bad overseas would allow people to open their eyes - yay New Zealand, we're in such a great place - but it's not working in that capacity. 

"I think people still want to buy into the narrative that there is some conspiracy behind this and it's just not a bad virus - it's just incredible that narrative still exists... This isn't some conspiracy that's not happening. It's happening and it's devastating." 

No MPs were there because Parliament doesn't resume sitting until next week. 

Te Kahika's status with the Public Party is unclear - while he still lists the party's website on his Facebook page, the website's front page consists of a lengthy list of his alleged mishandling of the party's finances.