Health

Here Are the Questions the Right's Favorite Coronavirus Truther Isn't Willing to Answer

Alex Berenson prefers not to be fact-checked.

by Laura Wagner
Apr 16 2020, 8:21pm

Screenshot via Fox News

Alex Berenson, the world's foremost former New York Times reporter, is also one of the world's foremost coronavirus truthers. He has spent the last month or so tweeting nearly non-stop about what he sees as coronavirus fearmongering, governments' overreactions to the pandemic, and media's failure to ask the tough questions that he and he alone is smart and brave enough to ask. He's evidently convinced that the measures being used to prevent the spread of coronavirus are plunging America into authoritarianism and regularly chastises other reporters for spreading "misinformation." Berenson, bolstered by his Times pedigree, presents as a thinking man's Clay Travis, another COVID-19 truther who rails against so-called "coronabros" on Twitter. Berenson, he would have you believe, simply wants to engage with the facts. Many of his contrarian stances aren't rooted in fact, though, and others simply don't make any sense.

Despite this, he's been embraced by right-wing media for his "iconoclasm," as Sean Hannity called it last week. (Even Hannity, though, didn't fully buy Berenson's talking points.)

A Fox News headline read, "Meet the former NYT reporter who is challenging the coronavirus narrative." The right-wing website the Blaze wrote: "Former NY Times reporter sounds alarm over flawed coronavirus models that have tossed economy into 'freefall' -- and blasts the left." The right-wing website the Daily Wire went with: "'Why Have We Shut Down The Country?' Ex-New York Times Reporter Challenges The Dire Coronavirus Models." The Federalist, a right-wing website that recently ran a column by an unlicensed former dermatologist arguing for "coronavirus parties," quoted Berenson's tweets in a post headlined, "The Scientist Whose Doomsday Pandemic Model Predicted Armageddon Just Walked Back The Apocalyptic Predictions." Right-wing website Breitbart has also quoted Berenson's "reporting" extensively, writing: "Former New York Times health reporter Alex Berenson–a critic of the national lockdowns whose reporting has shed a light on much of the inaccuracy in the data and modeling used to make public policy decisions–quickly pointed out that the DHS and HHS model is outdated and comes from a time when the government was relying on modeling that has been significantly flawed."

The problem with citing Berenson's "reporting" is that what he has actually reported is unclear, since during the crisis he has produced nothing beyond hundreds of often-confusing tweets. As such, and given his rise to prominence, my editors and I thought it would be edifying to try and suss out exactly what he has been and is arguing, and how he is reaching his conclusions.

Do you know something we should know? We'd love to hear from you. Contact the reporter at laura.wagner@vice.com or laura.wags@protonmail.com.

As I said to Berenson on Monday in an email (which he has since published on Twitter in a misguided attempt to own me), I thought a Q&A with him would be useful for our readers.

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He responded:

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I agreed to run the Q&A verbatim and sent him a list of 12 questions. I had no way of knowing that Berenson, purportedly a journalist himself, was also trying to bar me from asking follow-up questions with his very specific conditions. I did not (and would not) agree to these terms.

The next day I emailed to ask when I could expect his answers, and yesterday morning he sent them. I read his responses, formulated follow-up questions, and sent them back. He was not happy with that.

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I responded.

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He wrote back.

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Shortly after that, Berenson posted about the Q&A on Twitter. He published his responses to my questions, as he is apparently wont to do, but he did not—perhaps unsurprisingly—publish my follow-up questions, which he chose not to answer. If he had, I would have run his responses verbatim, as agreed.

Here is the full Q&A, including the follow-up questions that Berenson did not answer. They are presented in italics.

What is happening with the COVID crisis, in your view?

Although SARS-2-COV is a real virus that appears to pose a serious threat to the elderly and some people with chronic conditions, we have increasing evidence that its risks have been overstated—certainly to the general population under 50 and especially to anyone under 30, and that the draconian lockdowns we have undertaken may have economic, educational, and societal effects far more serious than the virus.

You say here that the risk to people under the age of 30 is overstated. You've also said that it is almost zero. What would you say the risk of coronavirus is to people under 30 and how are you quantifying that risk? How do you account for the risk of a person under 30 transmitting COVID-19 to someone who is not under 30 or otherwise at a higher risk?

What is the media getting wrong about the coronavirus crisis?

Major media outlets have vastly overplayed the risks the virus poses to non-elderly people, failed to report the true age stratification reported in mortality datasets from Italy and elsewhere, until very recently failed to report how badly the models that have been used to justify major lockdowns have performed, and failed to question whether broad lockdowns rather than more targeted measures focusing on vulnerable populations might better solve the problem. In general, they have had a tone of near-hysteria for the last month.

Can you point out a few of the news reports that you think are the most hysterical?

When and why did you personally start to doubt the official narrative of the COVID crisis?

I was actually quite concerned about SARS-2-COV in January and February. I did begin to wonder why China had not seen a wider epidemic spread in late February, and when I read the Imperial College paper around March 17 I noticed that no one was talking about the fact that the risks were almost exclusively to older people. But it was the March 25 revision of the Imperial College estimate - and the effort to downplay the revision as simply part of the original model, when any reasonable reading suggested that was spin at best - that grabbed my attention. After that I began to focus very closely on the models and whether or not they matched the real-world outcomes for hospitalizations. They did not, either in New York or nationally. Once I realized that, I began to push very hard.

With regard to the Imperial College paper, one was originally published March 15, then updated on March 16? This paper, published on March 24, shows "evidence of initial success for China exiting COVID-19 social distancing policy after achieving containment." Is this the paper you are referring to you? Which parts do you identify as spin?

What would you say to those who say that models offer a range of possibilities? Of the Imperial College paper revision you mention, the Atlantic wrote, "But there was no turn, no walking back, not even a revision in the model. If you read the original paper, the model lays out a range of predictions—from tens of thousands to 500,000 dead—which all depend on how people react. That variety of potential outcomes coming from a single epidemiological model may seem extreme and even counterintuitive. But that's an intrinsic part of how they operate, because epidemics are especially sensitive to initial inputs and timing, and because epidemics grow exponentially."

What is your medical and public health background?

I covered the pharmaceutical industry for The New York Times for several years and have written a book about the psychiatric risks of cannabis which contains both original research and an analysis of more than a hundred papers on cannabis, psychiatric health, and violence. The social science community and cannabis advocates hate the book, but psychiatry groups regularly ask me to speak to them about it.

Speaking of your book, how do you answer the people who "hate" or otherwise take issue with your book, including 75 scholars and clinicians, who say your book relied on cherry-picked evidence and flawed pop science?

How do you answer people who say that the earliest, most dire projections of COVID's impact have been avoided because of social distancing, business shut-downs, and other interventions?

It's important to define social distancing. We know some voluntary social distancing was taking place before the government-mandated lockdowns, and that may have slowed the spread somewhat. But data from China and elsewhere show that the virus actually spreads more in family clusters and nosocomially (in hospitals and similar medical settings) than anywhere else.

Couldn't you argue that all infections spread most in these settings and that of course they'll spread there more when other venues of transmission have been shut down?

Right now it is not at all clear that lockdowns help to reduce spread in the short-term—and in fact they may actually worsen it and thus worsen the health system strain they are meant to prevent.

How could lockdowns worsen transmission?

I don't mean to say this case is proven, but there is considerable evidence for it.

What evidence?

Further, the University of Washington model was released after the lockdowns began, and explicitly accounted for their effects—yet it was still very wrong.

Which model are you referring to? This one?

Do you think the acute crisis has passed in New York City? And how do you define acute crisis?

For several days, new hospitalizations have been effectively flat in New York State (including the city), which means that New York hospitals are no longer facing a major wave of new cases that threatens to overwhelm them. That's how I define acute crisis. Initially, we were told that the point of the lockdowns was to "flatten the curve"—to reduce the strain on the health-care system. It's not clear they worked at all (see above), but in any case the curve flattened earlier than we expected—and, frankly, before the models predicted the lockdowns would work.

Could you spell out why it's not clear that the lockdown worked in New York City?

What do you make of the reporting that shows coronavirus deaths are undercounted for various reasons that include people dying at home ?

Some people have died at home or more often in nursing care facilities in New York and certainly in Italy and Spain. It is not clear yet how much excess mortality SARS-2-COV drives, although Spain and Italy and even New York City are now showing some.

Some estimates suggest the excess mortality could be roughly double official counts. What do you make of those?

It is important to remember that flu epidemics regularly drive excess mortality too. It is also important to remember that many of the people who've died are extremely old and sick, and one can legitimately argue whether it makes sense to count their deaths as related to coronavirus or underlying conditions.

If an old and sick person has coronavirus and dies, why would one argue that it wasn't related to coronavirus?

This CBC article from 2012—about the flu and death estimates—is a good summary of the issue.

Who do you think stands to gain from keeping social distancing, business shut-downs, and other interventions in place?

I don't think anyone necessarily stands to gain, but admitting that a policy this economically and socially destructive may have been unnecessary is something almost no politician or public health expert will be in a rush to do.

Don't politicians and public health experts also have to deal with the social and political consequences of a decimated economy? Wouldn't they also want to expedite the redevelopment of a functioning society?

You recently posted a multi-tweet thread, which you said was a fictional exercise, which speculated about what a "public health epidemiologist in a big city" would do if his prediction models were wrong, but bringing him a lot of fame and accolades. What was the purpose of that exercise? Do you think officials from the CDC, NIH, and other institutions of public health are spreading misinformation for personal gain?

No, I think all people—including me—have complex motives and sometimes get themselves in tricky spots.

That makes sense, but I'm not clear what the point of your thread was then?

Why do you think the useful metric for measuring coronavirus is the number of open ICU beds in hospitals and not the number or people infected?

We still—three-plus months into this—have no idea how many people are infected or more importantly have been infected and recovered. Until we run a widespread antibody test, we will not know the latter. As a result, we have no idea how serious SARS-2-COV really is, based on the most important metric of all—the infection fatality rate, the number of people who are infected who die. There is increasing evidence—for example from antibody tests that have been conducted in Germany, that it is much lower than we initially thought—perhaps in the range of 0.35% (a bit more than 1 death in 300, and again, nearly all of those deaths are in people over 70, with serious health conditions, or both).

Is this the German study you are referring to? If so, this preliminary study is based on a limited sample; can/should you extrapolate that to the U.S. population?

Instead, we are running more tests to find out who has an active infection. When we run more tests, we find more infections. That fact doesn't necessarily mean the outbreak is worsening; it may simply mean we are running more tests. Hospitalizations are a much more reliable metric—decent physicians will not hospitalize anyone who doesn't need to be. And we know that hospitalizations are a leading indicator—some people progress to the ICU, and some die, in a fairly predictable pattern. We want to know what is going to happen, not what has happened. Hospitalizations are our best indicator.

Hospitalizations are a much more reliable metric for what?

Why is the infection fatality/ICU hospitalization rate more important than the infection rate? The more people who get sick, the more people who will die, right?

One other point - we were told the initial point of the lockdowns was to "flatten the curve" - to reduce the strain on the health-care system. Hospitalizations are the key metric of that standard too. And by all evidence, the health-care system in the US is not under strain. In fact, that's not quite true—it is under strain, but from lack of use.

Are you saying that hospitals in New York are not under strain?

What do you mean when you say the health care system is under strain from lack of use?

Hospitals are laying people off and in some cases closing because they are so empty. They have canceled elective surgeries and discharged patients to prepare for a "surge" that has not happened. This fact alone should make anyone question the general pandemic narrative.

Didn't hospitals cancel elective surgeries and discharge patients to prevent the spread of coronavirus?

It seems like you're making an argument against for-profit healthcare. Is that an accurate reading?

Why do you think the right and right-wing media have embraced your talking points about the crisis so enthusiastically?

In part because they are genuinely concerned about the damage to the economy - they tend to be more focused on small businesses, for example, where the left is more concerned about unionized workers. In part because—unfortunately, and like everything else in the United States—the coverage of the epidemic has rapidly devolved into the mainstream center-left media vs. Trump, a fact that helps no one. And in part because I think a lot of people—especially people with connections to the health-care system (and in the US, that covers tens of millions of people) are genuinely confused about why the hospitals are not filling up and looking for additional information.

What do you make of the protest in Michigan today during which people wore Trump paraphernalia and at least several bore confederate flags?

If you were in charge of the U.S. coronavirus response, what would you do?

Outside New York City, I would reopen schools as soon as possible. Children and teens are at effectively zero risk here and to punish them by denying them school and in some cases forcing them to stay home with abusive parents is deeply counterproductive.

Even if healthy children are at a low risk of dying from the disease, what about the evidence that suggests they can and are being infected and are both symptomatic and asymptomatic transmitters of the virus? The Lancet wrote: "The most important finding to come from the present analysis is the clear evidence that children are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, but frequently do not have notable disease, raising the possibility that children could be facilitators of viral transmission. If children are important in viral transmission and amplification, social and public health policies (eg, avoiding interaction with elderly people) could be established to slow transmission and protect vulnerable populations."

I would immediately reopen all parks and playgrounds and stop discouraging people from socializing outside; all evidence suggests that doing so poses a very low risk of transmission.

Not to be tedious, but what evidence?

I would very quickly—as in today—set up reasonable prospective metrics to examine hospital utilization (and trends, trends are crucial).

Which trends would be most crucial to look at?

States with low utilization and no troubling trends would reopen quickly but in stages, workplaces, then retail, then hospitality. Mass events like concerts would be last. In New York City, because the hospitals are still working through the crisis, there will be a bit of a lag.

I would turn our focus to protecting the truly vulnerable - the elderly and sick. Hospitals should have fever checks and try to isolate COVID patients; nursing homes should have fever checks, regular staff testing (and ideally only allow people who are already immune as caregivers, though that may be difficult for a while). People, especially those who feel sick, should be encouraged to wear masks for a while—it can't hurt, it seems to have helped in Asia.

And we desperately, desperately need antibody testing—national, randomized antibody testing—to find out how many of us have already been infected and recovered. I don't understand why that isn't the absolute first priority. If only 1 percent of the population has been infected, we may be in a lot of trouble, but if 30 percent has and we just didn't know it, we are in far better shape. I would also press for a randomized trial to see if hydroxychloroquine works as a treatment. It has been talked about so much - let's get a definitive answer.

Antibody testing makes a lot of sense (there is a push for it, but the tests are not readily available). Also noting that there are hydroxychloroquine trials already underway.

I would also like to add a question here, which is: How are you and your family personally going about your days?

Follow Laura Wagner on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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Alex Berenson
former New York Times reporter