My critique, last week, of Pandemics Data & Analysis (PANDA) and its head honcho, actuary Nick Hudson, prompted a manifesto of prodigious length. In many ways, it simply underscores my concerns.

My article last week, Why PANDA cannot be taken seriously, prompted its leader, the actuary and private equity guy Nick Hudson, to write a reply

It is a great written example of a Gish Gallop, which RationalWiki defines as ‘the fallacious debate tactic of drowning your opponent in a flood of individually-weak arguments in order to prevent rebuttal of the whole argument collection without great effort. The Gish Gallop is a conveyor belt-fed version of the on the spot fallacy, as it’s unreasonable for anyone to have a well-composed answer immediately available to every argument present in the Gallop. The Gish Gallop is named after creationist Duane Gish, who often abused it.’

It was never my purpose to dispute or refute all of PANDA’s positions and arguments. In fact, as I made clear to Hudson at the ‘cordial dinner’ to which he refers, I agree with many of them, especially as they relate to lockdown measures. (We didn’t talk much about vaccines at all, which explains why I didn’t contest him on vaccines all that much.)

My purpose was to explain why PANDA’s claims are not trustworthy, and inadvertently, Hudson has here presented us with several more examples to bolster that case.

Let’s start where Hudson ends: ‘The policy response to this epidemic has done great harm to ordinary people while deepening the reach, influence and power of oligarchs, politicians and sheltered academics. Ivo parrots the voices of this  “elite”. Fearful, wholly taken in by manipulative propaganda, and hopelessly biased.’

Hudson is fully aware that I have been extremely critical of governments, lockdowns, bans, the World Health Organisation (and again in fourpart harmony), more lockdowns, and various academics. My criticism has been consistent: I still hold the views that I held early on in the pandemic.

On almost all these issues, my views are largely consistent with those of PANDA.

Describing my vociferous opposition to lockdowns as ‘parroting the voices of this “elite”’ and ‘wholly taken in by manipulative propaganda’ is either emblematic of mendacity, or of Hudson’s conspiratorial mindset. 

He appears to view the world in partisan political terms: either you’re an ivermectin-popping, antivaxxing, Covid-denialist like him, or you’re a stooge for ‘the narrative’ of pandemic tyranny. And because I disagree with him on vaccines, vaccine mandates, and ivermectin, I must fall into the latter category, hilarious though that must sound.

He has gone so far as to denounce me, publicly, as a ‘cultish bedwetter’ and a ‘degenerate’, and claiming I advocate vaccine mandates, when in fact I have never done so. Even in my column in which I argued vaccine mandates would not violate liberal principles, I said I would not recommend them.

Hudson and PANDA have become exactly what I warned against in December 2020, when I said: ‘Don’t let rational skepticism turn into crazy denialism.’

He says that applying such terms to him, or anyone else, is a sign of ‘frail logic’, but on the very day he first published his response on BizNews, he posted to a chat group: ‘It wasn’t a disease outbreak. It was a panic outbreak.’

When I said that this is exactly the sort of denialism that undermines his credibility, he first tried to evade the issue, before offering to ‘restate’ his case, to the default Covid-isn’t-dangerous-the-treatments-cause-harm-and-ivermectin-works mantra of the antivax industry

Minimising Covid-19

In response to my accusation that the Ionnanides paper he cited for claiming a global infection-fatality rate (IFR) or 0.15% does not support this claim, Hudson claims that it was an error on his part, and offered a revised paper that is, at least, consistent with his claims.

What he does not explain, however, is why he selected the paper that reports the lowest IFR of all, written by someone who has been widely criticised for his attempts to minimise the severity of Covid-19. It differs greatly from, for example, the IFR of 0.68% found by this systematic review and meta-analysis. This is called cherry-picking. Or confirmation bias.

Hudson also overlooks the fact that South Africa’s crude mortality (which is the percentage of the entire population that died of Covid-19, as opposed to the percentage of those infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus) is already at 0.15%, which is his claim for the IFR. If you calculate it from excess deaths, instead of official Covid-19 deaths, you get a crude mortality of over 0.4%, which suggests an IFR much higher than the figure Hudson bandies about.

It is notable that the Ioannides data, despite being described as ‘global’, comes mostly from Europe and North America, where standards of hospital care may well result in a far lower IFR than we see here in South Africa.

In Hudson’s defence of his 0.15% IFR claim, he makes a point of highlighting the possibility of misattribution of deaths. This is another common trope among anti-vaxxers: that cases have been wildly exaggerated.

‘In most countries, any death with a positive Covid-19 test result is recorded as a Covid-19 death,’ he says, without citing any evidence for this, because it simply is not true. 

‘In South Africa,’ he says, ‘the Department of Health (DoH) requires that all deaths be listed as a Covid-19 death “unless a clear alternative or unrelated supervening medical cause of death (such as trauma or poisoning) is apparent.”’

That is not true. It says: ‘The underlying cause of death of a person who has been diagnosed with Covid-19 should be stated as Covid-19, unless…’

Hudson claims that this policy leads to what he claimed happened in the US, where gunshot wounds and broken necks were misattributed as Covid-19 deaths.

But that isn’t all the Department of Health says. Its full definition of a Covid-19 death is more elaborate, not at all unreasonable, and not likely to lead to the classification of unrelated deaths as Covid-19 deaths. In fact, it explicitly excludes cases where Covid-19 played no causal or contributory role.

For that matter, the reference to gunshot wounds and broken necks is also questionable. It is based on a few anecdotal claims, but those who seek to cast doubt on the veracity of reported Covid-19 numbers exploit it to suggest that there is a systematic, intentional overcount of Covid-19 deaths. 

This view goes back to a report on the website of none other than the inveterate antivaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., which argues that any Covid-19 deaths that involved comorbidities ought to be attributed to the comorbities, rather than to Covid-19, leaving only the 10-odd percent of cases in which Covid-19 was the sole cause of death.

So if you have high blood pressure, then contract Covid-19, and die of severe respiratory distress syndrome, the antivaxxers would demand that the death certificate does not mention Covid-19, and instead list high blood pressure as the cause of death.

The actual guidance for certifying deaths due to Covid-19 issued by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) certainly does not encourage listing Covid-19 in cases where it wasn’t a contributory cause of death, nor does it systematically overcount Covid-19 cases.

On the contrary, excess mortality data, which correlate well with Covid-19 infection waves, but poorly with lockdown severity or any other factor, suggests that Covid-19 deaths are likely under-reported in the official statistics.

Comorbidities

The insistence on dismissing the deaths of older people or people with comorbidities as somehow not relevant to evaluating the dangers of Covid-19 puzzles me. Hudson keeps saying that Covid-19 poses a low risk to the majority of young, healthy people. 

Yet in South Africa, 43% of the adult population suffers from hypertension, of which four out of five do not have it under control with medication. About 15% suffer from type 2 diabetes. Almost 50% of adults are obese or overweight. Not to even mention the millions who are immunocompromised due to HIV or TB.

One must conclude that only a minority of South Africans are both young and healthy, and nominally less at risk from Covid-19.

So the reality is not, as Hudson keeps claiming, that ‘it presents negligible risk to the majority of the population’.

Citing quacks

I’m pleased to see that Hudson has changed his preferred source for the Pfizer Manufacturing and Supply Agreement he considers to be problematic from an article by superquack Joseph Mercola published on the website of antivax king Robert F Kennedy Jr., and instead links it to Transparency International.

However, the antivaxxer-in-chief need not fear that he has been abandoned. Hudson claims: ‘Off-label drugs have shown efficacy in many studies, yet are the targets of obvious propaganda by pharmaceutical companies and captured media.’

As a general statement, this is false. There has been ongoing research into repurposing drugs for the treatment of Covid-19, and no drug is targeted by ‘propaganda’. Adverse scientific findings are not ‘propaganda’. The anti-viral medication remdesivir, which is routinely used in the treatment of Covid-19, is one such repurposed drug.

Of course, Hudson means to refer to ivermectin, which has not shown efficacy in many studies. The link he provides to substantiate his claim of ‘propaganda’ goes to a blog post, and the first link in that blog post goes to… a new book by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the stars of the disinformation dozen.

In a private WhatsApp group, Hudson also punted this book: ‘I know you won’t read the book The Real Anthony Fauci because, you know, antivaxxer and all that, but…’

Quite right, Nick. Quite right. I won’t be reading that.

‘An army of Ivos employs [terms such as antivaxxer] to intimidate. They use these slurs to erect an electric fence around this debate, prohibiting people with sincere concerns and honest questions from entering in and earnestly seeking the truth. It is time to regard the use of terms like “antivaxxer” as fundamentally unserious and unhinged. It is time to tear down this fence and re-enable open enquiry into matters that affect us all so profoundly.’

While this is a touching defence of antivaxxers, it is also nonsense. If one earnestly seeks the truth, one cannot give credence to proven frauds and liars. The claims of antivaxxers are not ‘sincere concerns and honest questions’. 

Life is too short to take seriously every single claim from discredited sources.  Oh, wait, ‘discredited’ was another ‘slur’ my private clone army employs to ‘intimidate’. 

So Hudson believes we should listen to any and every clown with an opinion on vaccines, no matter how unqualified (Kennedy is an attorney) and no matter how false their previous claims (Kennedy, of the vaccines-cause-autism school, has been widely debunked).

Conspiratorial thinking

In his reply, Hudson confirms my claim that he believes Bill Gates controls medical institutions, ‘domestically and internationally’. Because the FDA levies statutory ‘user fees’ from the pharmaceutical industry, Hudson appears to believe this makes it a patsy of the industry. 

What’s the deal with Bill Gates, anyway? In a libertarian utopia, public healthcare would be provided by charity. Yet here is a guy who got rich by making products used by billions of people worldwide, and then retired and decided to spend his money on philanthropic causes such as education and funding healthcare for the poor.

Now even the libertarians are throwing rotten tomatoes at him. Why?

Hudson calls him a ‘vaccine stakeholder’, largely because of his investment in vaccine manufacturers such as Moderna. Sure, he profits from a successful investment, as anyone should. That’s how capitalism works. 

But if Bill Gates only cared about being richer, he could have just hung on to the Microsoft shares he sold when he retired. If he had, he’d be twice as rich as Elon Musk today. 

The only people who have problems with Gates’s supposed agenda are antivaxxers. The reality is that Bill Gates is the good guy here, charitably funding healthcare for those who need it, and assisting healthcare systems in poor countries so they can better serve their people and help lift them out of poverty. 

There’s no sinister motive here. There isn’t even a profit motive here. 

Hudson refers to ‘controlled media organisations’, which is something you’d typically hear from a QAnon conspiracy theorist. Controlled by whom? Bill Gates? Klaus Schwab? The World Economic Forum? The World Health Organisation? The New World Order?

He claims the media have promoted a ‘fear narrative’, which they have, because sensation sells. This is always so. That’s why the world is always about to end next month. That doesn’t mean this is a scripted narrative, concocted by some manipulative elite. 

If the media had been controlled, one would expect them to universally toe the government line.Yet they have not. Various media outlets have been widely critical of the government response to the pandemic. It took an outcry by healthcare experts and the media to give the government a wake-up call at the beginning of 2021, when it turned out nobody had bothered to order any vaccines.

He tries to link this to government by saying they deployed ‘behavioural science techniques’ in an unprecedented way, to create ‘an entirely false narrative about Covid-19’. This he sources to the personal website of a ‘writer, photographer and filmmaker’.

Discredited sources

Hudson attributes claims about the CDC’s supposed manipulation of adverse event reporting systems to a statistician, Mathew Crawford, who is antivax and supports the use of chloroquine for the treatment of Covid-19, who had only heard of VAERS ‘in the last few months’, and whose claims about adverse events have been thoroughly debunked

Hudson claims that the studies I cite showing reduced transmission due to vaccination ‘weak’, while he posits in extraordinary detail exactly how he believes transmissibility changes with vaccination, an act of speculation that is way beyond the expertise of an actuary, without citing a single source.

He cites US court rulings against mandatory vaccines, as if they have any relevance whatsoever to South Africa, or to the question of whether vaccines work or whether they ought to be made mandatory. 

He talks about ‘shenanigans with definitions’, without citing any of the definitions in question, as if any changes to definitions are inherently sinister.

He says that nothing can improve on recovered immunity, which may be true, although studies on this subject warn that while natural infection may bestow better immunity, this benefit ‘does not outweigh the risk of disability and death from Covid-19’. While the issue is under investigation, the idea that natural immunity is inherently better than vaccinated immunity has a long history in the antivax movement

Hudson cites cardiologist Peter McCullough, who has been sued by a former employer for continuing to use his old credentials while making false claims about Covid-19 – claims that happen to coincide with those made by PANDA, such as that healthy people under 50 need not get vaccinated, that recovered people cannot get reinfected, and that vaccinations have caused a great many deaths. He has also, falsely, claimed that vaccines do not work against the delta variant.

Hudson claims it is dangerous to vaccinate during an epidemic, which seems rather absurd. Before an epidemic, you don’t know what to vaccinate against, and after an epidemic, there is no longer any need to vaccinate. This is therefore an argument for never vaccinating, which sounds an awful lot like antivaxxery to me. That claim is likely based on the work of Geert vanden Bossche, which, like McCullough’s, has been comprehensively debunked.

He raises ‘antibody-dependent enhancement’, which has not been observed despite billions of vaccine shots, and has only ever been observed with a single dengue fever vaccine in the past. It’s baseless fear-mongering – which is ironic, given that he accuses the media of spreading a ‘narrative of fear’. 

In many cases, Hudson just repeats claims that I debunked in my original article. 

I could spend thousands of words responding to each and every point in Hudson’s 7 000-word missive. Some are valid, but very many are unsupported, attributed to dodgy sources, based on a selective reading of the data, or blatantly wrong. However, that would turn this article into a book. 

More importantly, that would miss the entire point of my earlier article. I don’t claim that PANDA is always wrong. It clearly is not. However, by persistently peddling dishonest alarmism about vaccines, consistently citing discredited sources, and even defending notorious antivaxxers, PANDA has forfeited its right to be taken seriously.


contributor

Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. Follow him on Twitter, @IvoVegter.