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What to know about the study of COVID-19 lockdowns and deaths by economists

Fox News and other outlets are touting a new study that looked at the impact of early COVID-19 lockdowns on mortality from the disease. The stories are accompanied by explosive headlines that say research by Johns Hopkins University found lockdowns barely reduced deaths.

“Johns Hopkins Study: Lockdowns Had ‘Little To No Effect On COVID-19 Mortality’ But Had ‘Devastating’ Effects On Society,” read a headline from the Daily Wire.

After running a similar story about the study, Fox News shared a second story chastising news outlets including the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC and the Washington Post for ignoring it, calling it “a black- full media out”.

But the study is not definitive. The research represents a non-peer-reviewed “working paper” written by three economists affiliated with Johns Hopkins University. The institution did not approve the study.

“The university has not taken a position on this and generally would not in such a situation,” university spokeswoman Jill Rosen wrote in an email.

“The working paper is not a peer-reviewed scientific study, and its authors are not medical or public health researchers,” said Joshua Sharfstein, associate dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. , to PolitiFact in an emailed statement. “To reach their conclusion that ‘lockdowns’ had a small effect on mortality, the authors redefined the term ‘lockdown’ and ignored numerous peer-reviewed studies. The working paper did not include new data, and serious questions have already been raised about its methodology.”

He added: “COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, a respiratory virus transmitted between people. Reducing transmission of the virus results in fewer cases, hospitalizations and deaths. At the start of the pandemic, when so little was known about COVID -19, containment policies prevented the virus from infecting people and saved many lives.”

The authors of the article — Jonas Herby, Lars Jonung and Steve H. Hanke — all come from a background in economics. Hanke, a senior fellow at the CATO Institute, has expressed views on ‘fascist’ lockdowns and vaccination policies on Twitter and repeatedly raised false claims about the pandemic.

In June 2020, 285 public health researchers, professionals and citizens signed an open letter to Johns Hopkins University asking Hanke to apologize after he falsely tweeted that Vietnam had reported no COVID data. -19. The letter claimed that its message was more political than evidence-based. He then deleted the tweet.

Once the working paper started making headlines for its finding that lockdowns only reduced COVID-19 deaths by 0.2%, several public health experts and researchers released statements indicating that the methodology of the document was flawed.

They pointed to issues such as the authors’ broad definition of lockdown, a limited focus on the first wave of the pandemic, a comparison of policies that appear different across countries, an exclusion of studies that examine the science of disease transmission, and a failure to account for the time lag between infection and death.

Bill Hanage, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said the question of whether lockdowns decrease mortality is not in itself reasonable.

“The whole premise is wrong, because given enough time and no vaccines, if the virus infects enough people, they will die,” Hanage said. “These interventions are designed to try to mitigate that so they don’t all get sick at the same time, so that’s completely wrong.”

The authors of the article did not respond to a request for comment.

Definition of “confinement”

The dictionary definition of a lockdown is “a mandatory state of isolation or restricted access instituted as a security measure”. During the pandemic, a lockdown largely referred to a temporary condition imposed by government authorities in which people were required to stay at home and refrain from or limit activities outside the home involving contact with the public, such as dining out or attending large gatherings.

Instead, the authors defined containment as “the imposition of at least one mandatory non-pharmaceutical intervention.” This means that a region’s mask-wearing policy would be considered a lockdown, some experts have pointed out, even if the policy does not prevent people from venturing out and frequenting public places.

“This report on the effect of ‘lockdowns’ does not significantly advance our understanding of the relative effectiveness of the plethora of public health measures adopted by different countries to limit the transmission of COVID-19. Policies that included ‘lockdown’ varied widely from country to country, which means the definition of the term is problematic,” wrote Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Center for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, in a reaction piece for the Science Media Center.

According to the authors’ definition of lockdown, Ferguson noted, “the UK has been in permanent lockdown since 16 March 2021 and remains in lockdown – given that it remains compulsory for people with diagnosed COVID-19 to s’ self-isolate for at least 5 days.”

The data used

The authors said their paper analyzed and reviewed previous studies that addressed the topic of the impact of lockdowns on COVID-19 mortality. They identified 18,590 potential studies, of which 34 ultimately qualified.

“We only include studies that attempt to establish a relationship (or lack thereof) between lockdown policies and mortality or excess mortality from COVID-19,” the paper says. “We exclude studies that use cases, hospitalizations or other measures.”

Many have challenged this decision. Dr Seth Flaxman, associate professor of computer science at the University of Oxford wrote:

“They systematically excluded any science-based studies of disease transmission, meaning the only studies examined in the analysis are studies using the methods of economics.

“These do not include key facts about disease transmission such as: subsequent lockdowns are less effective than earlier lockdowns because many people are already infected; lockdowns do not immediately save lives because there are has a lag between infection and death, so to see the effect of lockdowns on Covid deaths we have to wait about two or three weeks.”

Although the paper did not take into account the lag between infections and deaths, it also limited its review to studies performed early in the pandemic, with little or no data related to more recent variants and waves.

“Two years later, it still appears to be focused on the first wave of SARS-CoV-2 and in a very limited number of countries,” wrote Samir Bhatt, professor of statistics and public health at Imperial College London. . “As I mentioned it looks at a tiny slice of the pandemic, there have been many lockdowns since around the world with much better data, there are many important studies that cover the period in question looking at infections… The list of these studies is very long and suggests a very incomplete meta-analysis.”

Published research contradicts the results

Several articles covering the same period revealed that the containment measures helped save lives during the pandemic.

A June 2020 peer-reviewed study published in the journal Nature found that lockdowns have prevented tens of millions of infections and saved millions of lives.

“Our estimates show that the shutdowns have had a really dramatic effect on reducing transmission,” Bhatt, who worked on the paper, told NPR shortly after it was published. Bhatt’s team analyzed infection and death rates in 11 European countries and estimated that an additional 3.1 million people in those countries would have died if containment measures had not been put in place.

Nature also published an early study from the Global Policy Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, which analyzed lockdowns in China, South Korea, Iran, France, Italy and the United States. She revealed that lockdowns in those countries had averted around 62 million cases.

HealthFeedback, a scientific and fact-checking website, also found evidence in May 2021 that lockdowns save lives.

The website revealed that the New York Post had misrepresented an analysis by researchers at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy that used WalletHub’s ranking of US state lockdowns from May 2020 to October 2020. It assigned a numerical value to the restrictions imposed and the ranking correlated with the state’s average death rate over time.

According to the Post, the study found “little correlation between the stringency of lockdown measures and death rates”. But the ranking had several limitations, including the fact that it did not take into account aspects such as population density, use of public transport or close living conditions in urban areas, HealthFeedback found.

The analysis ultimately found that the lockdowns were effective both in reducing daily deaths in heavily infected states and in preventing further spikes in deaths. “Additionally, this trend implies that states that are more open are likely to experience higher COVID-19-related death rates,” he said.