My good friend Prasanna Viswanathan had sent me this long-form article in ‘Financial Times’.
Key portions from the article:
Concerns about the validity of models are not a new feature of public health crises. From their first live deployment in 2001 they have been contentious. Used in 2001 to inform national rules about prophylactic culling in areas deemed at risk of foot-and-mouth, the models infuriated farmers in districts who believed their livestock was healthy. Michael Thrusfield, an expert in animal diseases, later claimed that Prof Ferguson’s modelling was “not fit for purpose” and led to the unnecessary deaths of animals. While many authorities are more sympathetic to Prof Ferguson, the counterfactual is hard to prove
There was a similar dispute after the 2009 swine flu outbreak when advice based on Imperial’s model was made public by ministers. This described a “reasonable worst-case scenario” in which there could be 65,000 deaths. In practise, there were only 457.
A later official report from Deirdre Hine, a Welsh physician and former chair of the Commission for Health Improvement, cleared everyone of overreacting, despite the consequent expenditure of £1.2bn on flu remedies that were not needed….
…. Some scientists point out that the model was originally built for a different disease — influenza. According to Mike Cates, a Cambridge university mathematics professor, “everyone’s conscious of the fact that it has been rapidly converted from a different purpose and wasn’t originally designed for this type of virus and this type of transmission”. He is now leading a project sponsored by the Royal Society — the UK’s senior scientific academy — to create more diverse modelling groups….
….. An ad-hoc group, Sage, is assembled to meet specific crises. When it comes to infectious diseases, the group sifts data funnelled to it from three subcommittees. One, known as Nervtag, looks at the threat from emerging outbreaks. There is another specialising in modelling called SPI-M, and a behavioural group, or SPI-B. There is overlap between these bodies. For instance, Prof Ferguson sits on Nervtag, SPI-M and Sage itself.