I wanted to share the following transcript from a video that was recently posted, featuring Professor Knut Wittkowski. Professor Wittkowski worked at the Rockefeller University for 20 years as the Head of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design, and prior to that, was at the Eberhard Karls University in Tuebingen, German, working with Klaus Dietz, one of the leading epidemiologists in the world.
I am deeply concerned about the ramifications of the current global shutdown for every person, and it's my conviction, (shared with Dr. Wittkowski) that "social distancing" and isolation will have a far more deleterious outcome than would resuming normal life, and extending services and protections for those who are most vulnerable.I encourage everyone to watch the entire video, or to read the transcript, below:
Following is the transcription of an interview with Dr. Wittkowki from April 3rd. The link to the video interview is also available.
Q: Who are you?
KW: My name is Knut Wittkowski, I was at the Rockefeller University for 20 years, I was the Head of the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design, and before that, I worked for 15 years with Klaus Dietz one of the leading epidemiologists in the world at the German town of Tuebingen at the Eberhard Karls University.
Q: You gave recommendations for how best to deal with Covid-19 [Paper titled “How to fight SARS/Covid-19”] can you talk about that?
KW: As with every respiratory disease we should protect the elderly and fragile, because when they get pneumonia, they have a high risk of dying of pneumonia. This is one of the key issues to keep in mind. On the other hand, children do very well with these diseases: they are evolutionarily designed to be exposed to all kinds of viruses in their lifetime, and they should keep going to school and infecting each other. That contributes to herd immunity, which means after about four weeks at the most, the elderly people could start joining their families because then the virus would have been extinguished.
Q: You mention you think that containment could prolong the life of the virus, can you talk about that?
KW: With all respiratory diseases, the only thing that stops the disease is herd immunity. About 80% of people have to have contact with the virus. The majority of them won’t even notice they were infected, or they’ll have very very mild symptoms, especially children. It’s very important to keep the schools open and mingling, to spread the virus to get herd immunity as fast as possible. The elderly people who should be separated and the nursing homes should be closed during that time. Then they should come back, and meet their children and grandchildren after four weeks when the virus has been exterminated.
Q: What do you make of the policy that was enacted in the US and England and most places throughout the world—this policy of containment & shelter in place. What is your opinion?
KW: People are trying to flatten the curve, but I don’t really know why. What happens when you flatten the curve is you also widen it, and it takes more time. I don’t see a good reason for a respiratory disease staying in the population for longer than necessary.
Q: What do you say to people who say that we just don’t know about the lethality of the virus and the smartest thing is to contain everyone because we don’t have the data?
KW: We have seen two other SARS viruses before—Coronaviruses. This is not the first coronavirus that has come out and it won’t be the last. For all respiratory diseases we have the same type of epidemic. If you leave it alone, It comes for two weeks, it goes for two weeks, and it’s gone.
Q: You were speaking to my producer the other day and you were saying the pandemic is over. What do you mean by that?
KW: There are no more new cases in China and South Korea. The number of new cases In Europe is already starting to decline. The virus came later to the US, and we see a bit of an incline, but a levelling off in a couple of days. If we see cases are not increasing dramatically, that means the number of new infections has already declined substantially and peaked about a week ago.
Q: Are the Chinese stats true?
KW: The epidemic has ended there, yes. Because otherwise we would see people emerging and even in China it’s very difficult to keep information under the hood. If there were lots of cases in hospitals, if the hospitals they built (the temporary hospitals) were still full, we would hear that. It could not be suppressed.
Q: During a press briefing yesterday, Fauci and the President and the rest of the people assembled were saying that if had they not done the containment strategy they had done, upwards of 2 million people would have died, what do you think?
KW: I’m not paid by the government, so I’m entitled to actually do science. If the government had not intervened the epidemic would have been over, like every other respiratory disease epidemic.
Q: How many in your estimation would have died? Would it have been that much?
KW: Realistic numbers in the US, we have about 25000 cases every day. Our hospital system would have to deal with 2500 patients every day, for a certain period of time (that could be 3-4 weeks), and then the number would dramatically decrease again, and the whole epidemic would be over.
Q: Of this hospitalized, how many would die?
KW: Two percent would die—of all cases. Of all symptomatic cases. Two percent of all symptomatic cases would die, that is two percent of the 25000 a day, that is 500 people a day, and that will happen over four weeks, so that could be as high as 10000 people. Now, that compares to the normal numbers of flus during the flu season and we have in the US about 35000 deaths every year during the flu season, so it would be part of the normal situation during the flu season.
Q: Are they reporting flu deaths this year?
KW: Yes there is a statistic for flu, it’s currently at 10000 or 12000, so together with Corona, it is the same as the regular flu.
Q: You’re basing your estimate on latest numbers?KW: Yes.
Q: What accounts for current hospitals being overrun and world leaders and media going crazy?
KW: Funding for hospitals, as everyone knows, has not increased recently, so hospitals had to cut down, and therefore they now have to turn to their emergency plans, which is not terrible. That’s what they have been planning for, for decades, so if they have to put up some tents in Central Park, that’s not the end of the world. The tents are there, they have been maintained very well, for 3-4 weeks maybe, and then the crisis will be over.
This is not a situation no one has ever thought about.
Q: What about the major shortage of masks? PPE? All that? Why a shortage?
KW: People are getting crazy and it’s like the toilet paper.
Q: But…suddenly all masks and hand sanitizer was gone.
KW: It’s like the toilet paper. Shortages happen now and then all the time. If you have somebody reporting what’s happening at that day and that hospital, yes, it’s possible, Does it reflect the state of the whole hospital system in New York? Not necessarily.
Q: What about latest figure that they claim: that because of social distancing, we have saved ourselves from the two million dead, but we are probably looking at 150 to 200 thousand dead, though they’ve said it’s possible it can be lower if we are really good at social distancing.
KW: I don’t know where these numbers are coming from. They are totally unrealistic. There are no indications this flu is fundamentally different from any other flu. We know what happened to china, South Korea, Europe. There are no indications that anything is different from regular flu, although maybe it’s a bit worse than other flu, a little bit.
What happens with normal respiratory disease is that flu ends during spring, and people spend more time outdoors, because outdoors the viruses cannot easily spread. That is a form of containment—spending more time outdoors.
Q: We have been told to stay indoors.
KW: Yes. It keeps the virus healthy. Going outdoors is what stops every respiratory disease.
Q: People will say that the reason China came out of this ok in the end is that they went into such severe lockdown?
KW: They had an advantage. In the beginning, they didn’t know what they were dealing with. It took them a long time to start the containment of social distancing. For the epidemic, this was good, because it gave the virus enough time to reach herd immunity before the social distancing started.
Q: It’s interesting you say that, because at Imperial college, Neil Ferguson has change his estimate of number of dead in England from 500 000, to 20 000 or less, and he says that’s because of social distancing…We also know that the way social distancing was implemented in England was not severe or extreme or efficient, so after one day of lockdown he announced it would be 20 000 or less. Is there any way that number had changed because of social distancing?
KW: No. In fact we have data for that. I looked into a claim that people make that in China and South Korea the social distancing had successfully helped to control the epidemic. I looked at the dates when people actually started social distancing. In China, the epidemic peaked on February 1 to 5th—that period. But the schools were not closed until February 20th. That was two weeks later. In South Korea there was a similar pattern. In Daegu, where in the Shincheonji church you had the outbreak, the self-quarantine was ordered February 23rd, where the peak in that city happened. The national social distancing policy was not announced until Feb 9th, a week later, when the national peak happened. So both in China and South Korea, social distancing started long after the number of infections had already started to decline, and therefore had very little impact on the epidemic. That means they had already reached herd immunity, or were about to reach herd immunity. They were very close. But by installing the social distancing, they preventing it from getting to the final point, and this is why we are still seeing new cases in South Korea, several weeks after the peak.
Q: This is the sort of contagion that is airborne that you can’t deal with by doing tracing or social distancing. Explain why/
KW: Tracing an airborne disease is even more difficult than tracing a sexually transmitted disease, which is difficult enough, as we know from AIDS. Most people know who they had sexual contact with over the past two weeks. As a human travelling subway in New York and doing the other things we have to do in New York, I can’t tell you who the two, three, four, or 100 thousand people are, that I came in contact with over the past 2 weeks, so contact tracing for a respiratory disease is impossible.
Q: Why doesn’t containment work?
KW: You cannot stop the spread of a respiratory disease within a family. You can’t stop it with neighbours, with people who are delivering, physicians, anyone. People are social, and even in times of social distancing, they have contacts and any of those contacts will spread the disease. It will go slowly so it will not build up herd immunity, but it will happen, and it will go on forever, unless we let it go.
Q: You don’t feel this requires a vaccine?
KW: We don’t have a vaccine against the common cold, we have some vaccines against flu, but they are not that effective. Would it be nice to have a vaccine against SARS? Yes. It would be nice. It would help to create herd immunity a bit faster, because those who have the vaccine are immune, and those who are not just need to be exposed to become immunity.
Q: You can get this immunity naturally?
KW: For some reason we don’t understand, humankind has survived all sorts of respiratory disease. Nature has a way of making sure that we survive.
Q: It’s so much more contagious...is that [idea] ridiculous?
KW: I don’t know where that opinion comes from. The data that we have speaks against it.
Q: What data?
KW: Well, you can download the data from the European CDC. Every day, the data all over the world, you can analyze it, and that’s what I have done, and probably other people have also done.
Q: The numbers in Europe are not increasing any more—the numbers of cases. The deaths follow by about a week, and that’s normal because people die after they develop the disease, but the important thing is that the number of infections peaked around a week ago and is already on the decline. The European data includes the data in France where suddenly the number of cases doubled from one day to the next. This is someone finding a box of reports in an office and sending it in, and ‘oops,’ we forgot to report in the last moment. The epidemic in France is not increasing anymore, even though someone found a couple of reports in a shoebox.
Q: Won’t governments say it’s because we practised social distancing?
KW: I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t know what other people think. I’m a scientist. We can see that in China, in Korea, the epidemic went down, and the epidemic did exactly what every other epidemic did, and it’s not that 400% of old people died. Maybe it’s three percent and not one percent. Maybe. But nothing is fundamentally different from the flus we’ve seen before. Every coupe of years there is a flu that is a bit different than the others, and it goes away. This one behaves exactly the same way. The epidemic has ended in China, it has ended in South Korea, in Europe it’s declining and will be ending anytime soon/ It could be a bit longer than typically, because of the containment that flattened and prolonged the epidemic, so that’s really good if we want to be infected by it as long as it gets, and in the US we are prolonging the epidemic to flatten the curve. But eventually it will end.
Q: In your paper, you said that in mid-march there was a change in the reporting system. What was that about?
KW: This was not the first time. On march 20th, Germany changed its reporting system and suddenly a lot of cases that had not been reported before, were reported. But this is not a sudden increase in cases. Overall, this had no impact on the dynamics of the German epidemic. It increased until about march 27th or so, and has been stable or declining since. The problem in this disease is that reporting and diagnosing are not separated, and recorded differently. In the AIDS epidemic, every case was reported with day of diagnosis, and day of reporting. For whatever reason, this standard developed during the AIDS epidemic is not being employed here, so we can not de-convolute this data.
In Italy there was a spike on one day, there was a spike on one day in Norway, but we have sen many of these spikes. They last for one day, then the numbers go back to where they were before, so we are not scared anymore when we see something changing very fast. Nature doesn’t jump. As people have known for a long time, the course of an epidemic is always smooth. There his never a ten-fold increase in cases from one day from another. There is nothing to be scared about. This is a flu epidemic like every other flu. Maybe a bit more severe, but nothing that is fundamentally different from the flus that we see in other years.
Q: What do you think accounts for the difference in the response this time, than say, swine flu in 2009. Why are we suddenly so much more panicked and having shut the world down? What is going on?
KW: I think at least one factor is the internet. People are using the internet now much more often, and so news, wrong or false, is spreading the globe within hours, if not minutes. And so, let’s say 50 years ago, we would read in the paper that about a week ago there was an epidemic of flu in the US or in China, or somewhere else, and at that time, it was already over. So, people would say, ‘ok, that happens all the time’. Now, what we read is ‘oh, there were 785 cases in the Vatican over 2 days!’ Huh. Maybe not. Even if it was a reporting error, these stories are circulating the world and contributing to chaos and people being afraid of things they shouldn’t be afraid of.
Q: What do you think are the possible health risks of the policies we are following now, shelter in place?
KW: Maybe we will see a total fewer number of cases, however, we will see more cases among the elderly because we have prevented the school children from creating herd immunity. In the end we will see more deaths, because the school children don’t die, it’s the elderly who die, so we will see more deaths because of social distancing.
Q: We keep hearing about the second wave coming in the fall, tell me your thoughts. It sounds like you think we will have a second wave because of social distancing.
KW: Yes. If we had herd immunity now, there couldn’t be a second wave in the autumn. Herd immunity lasts for a couple of years, typically, and that’s why the last SARS epidemic we had in 2003 lasted for 15 years, for enough people to become susceptible again, so a new epidemic could spread —a related virus. Typically, there is cross immunity, so if you are exposed to one SARS virus you are less likely to fall ill with another SARS virus. If we had herd immunity we wouldn’t have a second wave. However, if we are preventing herd immunity from developing, it is almost guaranteed we will have another wave as soon as we stop social distancing or the climate changes with winter coming or something like that.
Q: But because this is an airborne illness, it sounds like social distancing wouldn’t prevent people from getting it, because it’s already spread, it’s airborne, it lives on surfaces, it has already gotten around, right?
KW: Unfortunately it seems that in western countries where the story of China was already known, people started with social distancing, as imperfect as it is, before the epidemic could reach the level that is needed to develop herd immunity.
Q: To summarize, you are saying that is going to flatten and extend the epidemic and create that second wave we are being told to fear?
KW: Yes. The second wave is a direct consequence of social distancing.
We already know that social distancing has cost the US taxpayer 2 trillion dollars. In addition to everything else, it also has severe consequences for our social lives, and depression is definitely something that we will be seeing. I can say for myself that walking through New York City right now is depressing.
Q: What do you think? Should we tolerate this? Should we stand for staying in house arrest until April 30th? Is that what we ought to do, or should we perhaps be resisting?
KW: We should be resisting and we should *at least* hold our politicians responsible. We should have a discussion with our politicians. One thing we definitely need to do that would be safe and effective, is open the schools. Let the children spread the virus among themselves which is a necessity to get herd immunity. This is one of the most destructive actions the government has done. We should focus on the elderly and separating them from the population where the virus is circulating. We should NOT prevent the virus from circulating among school children which is the fastest way to create herd immunity.
Q: Explain one more time as clearly as you can, what is the concept with natural herd immunity? What happens to the virus when it has gone through the population in the way you’re describing?
KW: If 80% of people have had contact with the virus they are therefore immune. Typically, that contact is just a form of immunization. So there is no disease, there is nothing happening, and still, there is immunity. If 80% of people are immune and somebody has a virus and is infectious, it will be very difficult for that infectious person to find someone who is still susceptible—not immune. And this person will not infect anyone else, and we won’t have the disease spreading. That is herd immunity.
Q: What happens to the virus at tha tpoint?
KW: Viruses don’t “live”, technically, but the virus will be destroyed. Right now, my dry cleaner closed down because of Covid, so I can’t get my clothes cleaned. So if there are viruses on my clothes which is possible, I cannot get them cleaned at the dry cleaner, because the dry cleaner is a non-essential service and has closed down. We are experiencing all sorts of counterproductive consequences of not-well-thought-through policy.
Q: Should there be a major testing regime in place? So the whole population is tested? Should that be a prerequisite for coming out [of quarantine]?
Q: Describe why testing is not productive.
KW: Testing doesn’t stop anything by itself…If we do antibody testing (not testing for the virus), but if we do antibody testing, we can tell how close we are to herd immunity, and that could be useful. But testing for people who are not infectious, if they have probably already been in their infectious period for two or three days, but now they’re being tested positive, so what are they supposed to do? We are already having social distancing, they can’t do much more than they’re already doing. Testing for respiratory disease is neither necessary nor effective.
Q: You mentioned earlier you have asthma, and I’m guessing you’re over 40, are you nervous?
KW: No. We don’t die of the virus. We die of pneumonia. So if we have a viral respiratory disease, once the body has created antibodies, the immune system has created antibodies, the immune system is killing all infected cells, which destroy much of the mucosa. Bacteria can settle on the destroyed mucosa and cause pneumonia. It is pnenumonia that is killing people if it is not treated. I had a virus three weeks ago—maybe Covid, who knows? My physician gave me the antibiotics I should take if the disease gets better and then gets worse, because that its a sign of pneumonia and we have to treat pneumonia.
Pneumonia is what is treated with antibiotics, not the viruses.
Q: So you feb you may have already had Covid-19?
KW: At the end of that experience (which reminds me of Camus’ plague— if you ever read it, you would see lots of parallels unfortunately). So no, I am not scared. I may have had it. Like many other people who had a mild flu like I had, or had no symptoms whatsoever, that is the normal thing that happens to 70% of the people in the end, even 75%, and it is the remaining who get ill and need treatment. They should seek treatment as early as possible, you shouldn’t wait, and it’s definitely helpful if you have health insurance.
The problem in cities like New York is that there are too many people who don’t have health insurance, and if you don’t have health insurance you are hesitant to see the doctor and if you are hesitant you see the doctor too late, and if pneumonia has already progressed, it’s too late for the antibiotics to do anything, and you may die.
The best thing is isolate if you are old and fragile, and if you get the disease see your doctor as soon as possible.
Q: You say 75% won’t get symptoms, even 80% or is it more? Do we know?
KW: We don’t know what it is right now. For that we would have to do very wide antibody testing. However, we already see the epidemic declining. And that is a sign that we have at least a substantial proportion of people who are immune. It may not be enough for herd immunity, we may not have reached the 80% we need, but we may have 50%.
Q: What do we do at this point? Is it too late?
KW: It’s difficult to tell. It may be too late, it may not be too late, the problem is that if we are artificially keeping number of infections low among low-risk people like school children and their parents. We may not have reached herd immunity yet, so if we are stopping, we may not have an increase in new infections. This is the downside of containment. We shouldn’t believe we are smarter than Mother Nature was when we were evolving. Mother Nature is pretty good at making sure we are a good match for the diseases we see each year.
Q: Is this a pandemic?
KW: It’s a pandemic like it’s a pandemic every year.
Q: Is there anything else you want to say? What has been aggravating you the most, what would you like people to know?
KW: I think people in the US and maybe in other countries as well, are more docile than they should be. People should talk with their politicians. Question them. Ask them to explain. If people don’t stand up for their rights, their rights will be forgotten.
I was at the Rockefeller University, I have been an epidemiologist for 35 years, I’ve been modelling epidemics for 35 years. It’s a pleasure to have the ability to help people understand, but it’s a struggle to get heard.