Coronavirus: Condemnation for viral video claiming COVID-19 no worse than the flu

A video uploaded by two doctors claiming COVID-19 was no worse than the flu has been taken down by YouTube for violating rules against disputing official health advice. 

In the clip, which went viral this week (excuse the pun), Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi from California said testing on more than 5000 people at their private clinic showed the virus was widespread, and therefore not as dangerous as others have claimed. 

It's unclear yet what the mortality rate from COVID-19 is, and it probably won't be known until after the pandemic is over and excess death data can be analysed. The World Health Organization at one stage suggested it could be as high as 3.4 percent, but that was before it was widely acknowledged the virus can spread asymptomatically, and probably too high. 

But Dr Erickson and Dr Massihi said their testing showed 12 percent of Californians were likely already infected, so COVID-19 has a death rate of about 0.03 percent - possibly lower than that of influenza. 

"Millions of cases, small amount of death," said Dr Erickson. 

In the hour-long video, which was tweeted by Tesla mogul Elon Musk, they also claimed doctors were being pressured to list COVID-19 as a cause of death when it wasn't, and insisted preventative measures like using PPE and social distancing weren't required. 

"Is the flu less dangerous than COVID? Let's look at the death rates - no it's not... Do we need to still shelter in place? Our answer is emphatically no. Do we need businesses to be shut down? Emphatically no. Do we need to have it, do we need to test them, and get them back to work? Yes, we do."

Their claims are at odds with what most other doctors and scientists would have us believe about the disease, which in just a few months has killed at least 227,000 people - more than 60,000 of them in the US. 

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM) condemned the doctors' claims, calling them "reckless and untested".

"As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public's health," the damning joint statement read. 

Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi.
Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi. Photo credit: YouTube/Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi

The two organisations listed a number of fallacies in how the pair came up with their conclusions. Firstly, they wrongly assumed the infection rate of people showing up for tests would be the same as the general population across the entire state of 40 million people. 

This was backed up by Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington.

"During a pandemic, the people who come into an urgent care clinic are not a random sample of the population," he tweeted in a thread debunking the video's claims.

"A large fraction of them are coming in precisely because they suspect that they have the disease. This generates sampling bias. Estimating that fraction infected from patients at an urgent care facility is a bit like estimating the average height of Americans from the players on an NBA court."

The doctors also compared the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 - which has only just arrived on the scene and is still spreading like wildfire in the US - with annual total deaths caused by influenza.

"The physician in the video is comparing two months of COVID-19 data, which again at this point is incomplete. It is not scientifically valid to make a comparison to the completed six-month flu season," said ACEP and AAEM.

Dr Bergstrom also pointed out that in New York, 0.14 percent of the entire population have been killed by the disease already - far more than the 0.03 percent mortality rate Drs Erickson and Massihi claimed.

"They've used absurd methodology to arrive at an implausible number."

"Further there are a large number of patients who have yet to recover, and many of them whom remain on life support or are likely to die," the ACEP and AAEM added.

The pair also made a number of "basic scientific errors" in the video, ACEP and AAEM said, including referring to both COVID-19 and influenza as 'DNA' viruses - neither are, their genetic material being made of RNA. 

Politicised misinformation

The response to COVID-19 in some nations has become politicised, with many on the right calling for measures like lockdowns and distancing to be lifted or ignored to get economies rolling again.

"I think the risk posed by the virus is not as great as it was sold to us," ACT leader David Seymour said last week. "If we know that the virus was not as bad as we thought, and the lockdown is worse than we thought, then the right thing to do is to actually change the balance between the lockdown measures and the virus."

This is especially true of the US, with Republican state Governors wanting to keep businesses open while Democratic-run states shut down to try and prevent the virus' spread. 

Both Dr Erickson and Dr Massihi are public supporters of US President Donald Trump, NBC reports. Trump has repeatedly lied about his response to the threat, touted unproven cures and played down its seriousness. 

"This pandemic has been so severely politicised in this country that evidence, no matter how poor, gets amplified enormously if it benefits one side or another," Dr Bergstrom told Californian news outlet KQED.

"We always hoped this crisis wouldn't come, but that if it did we'd all be in this together. That's been a huge surprise for all of us doing infectious disease epidemiology. It's amazing to have to deal with this misinformation that's being spread around for political purposes and the ways that interferes with adequate public health response."

Dr Massihi didn't respond to requests for a response from NBC, while Dr Erickson told a Fox-affiliated local TV station in Los Angeles he was after a "balancing act" between the economy and the public health response, and said there was no data to back up social distancing and lockdown measures.

"You have to balance the collateral damage with the medical illness and say which one has a worse effect on society."

New Zealand microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles has called such balance a "fallacy", saying getting rid of the disease quickly with a short, tight lockdown would allow us to reopen the economy sooner. 

"Of course the public health experts advocating the lockdown strategy understand that it brings serious and real harm to the economy, and that doing so has an impact on the health and wellbeing of people," she wrote in an opinion piece for The Spinoff earlier this month.

"Those considerations are baked into the thinking. But this is a matter of the least-worst. Again, you just need to look abroad to see how very much worse off we could be."

Right-wing media outlets in the US have condemned the video's removal from YouTube. Fox News host Laura Ingraham said it "isn't about science, this is about control... If you aren't worried about censorship in this country, you better be now."

Like many other controversial videos which get deleted, supporters of the pair have rushed to reupload it.

Facebook has yet to remove the video.