R-rates were sinking before lockdowns

In many places, even London, strict lockdowns could have been avoided

There is mounting evidence that in many places the reproduction value “R” (reproduction) of the coronavirus was already sinking before lockdowns were ordered. There is strong evidence that social distancing, the cancellation of large events, and working from home (for those who could) were effective. The lockdowns naturally curbed the R-value even faster, but it’s important to understand that the virus needs to be allowed to spread through the population otherwise we will spend the rest of our lives in quarantine. (Also, an infection does not equal death unless you are in a by now clearly defined at-risk group.)

Region by region measures would have been required rather than sweeping global measures that made little sense in many places.

Here are two stories: London and Switzerland

(Yes, the Daily Mail is one of those news outlets. I firmly believe that we can look at a set of numbers and evaluate what they mean without buying into the general narrative or political agenda of the particular publisher. The data itself is from Cambridge University.)

The information about London in the article above, as well as my personal opinion, does not suggest that no measures should have been taken. The data simply shows that social distancing, working from home, etc. was already proving effective. The discussion initially by governments was about “flattening the curve”, easing strain on the health systems, which these measures already did. The discussion was never about crippling entire economies and endangering a generation of young people (an article I will write later), which is what the draconian measures in many countries ultimately led to.

Switzerland would have managed with fewer restrictions: Was the lockdown excessive?

Two ETH [Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich] studies show: The epidemic was under control already on March 21st. And some measures were hardly effective. These numbers are the basis for a discussion about results of emergency policies. Did the Swiss Federal Council go too far?

At the height of the Covid-19 crisis nobody knew which numbers could be trusted. The Health Minister Alain Berset was “flying blind”, as he said. Various information circulated with regards to the most important factor, the reproduction value R. That’s the rate of infection: It’s the average number of people an infected person transmits the virus to.

Now the lockdown is over and the jungle of numbers becomes somewhat clearer. The scientific Taskforce advising the Federal Council has decided that the ETH calculates the R value most accurately. In their daily briefing, the Taskforce therefore relies on a method developed by prof. Tanja Stadler. The 39-year old works for the department of systems biology at the ETH Basel.

The study does not only show how the situation is developing now, but also what it looked like during the lockdown. Conclusion: While Switzerland was flying blind, the rate of infection was already clearly sinking. The country had the situation under control already after the first week of lockdown. The breakthrough even has a concrete date: March 21st the R value dropped below 1. Since then the virus has not spread exponentially anymore.

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At the beginning of March, and infected person transmitted the virus on average to two other people. Since March 21st, an infected person transmits at most to one other person. Yet Switzerland was ordered to stand still for an entire month after that. The curve was almost already at the desired point on March 17th, when lockdown was ordered and restaurants and most shops were closed. So were the harsh measures really necessary?

It’s easy to ask critical questions afterwards. But the first figures were published by ETH already on April 8th. [Some] newspapers noted the importance and titled: “The rate of infection started flattening already before lockdown.”

The ETH wanted to advertise for the Federal Council

After that, something strange happened. The ETH tried to get the headlines removed. An ETH spokesperson tweeted: “This headline is lurid, misleading and wrong.” Stadler’s team linked to the article on their website and noted what kind of headline they would have wished for instead. Literally: “The courageous intervention of the Federal Council shows results.” The ETH apparently didn’t want to support critics of the lockdown, to the contrary: [the institution] wanted to support the course the Federal Council had taken. The unnecessary adjective “courageous” revealed their intentions.

Two weeks later the ETH corrected their calculations based on a refined model, which then led to the curve to drop under the critical level a few days later […]. But the main message remained: The infection rate started flattening out before the lockdown. The newspaper headline was therefore correct.

The headline the ETH suggested was, however, speculation. Which measures had which effects was unknown at the time.

Would hygiene measures and a ban of large events have been enough?

The infectiologist Pietro Vernazza from St. Gallen commented on the ETH study on his blog mid-April. At that point the Federal Council justified a prolongation of the lockdown with said “blind flight”. But Vernazza had a clear view already then. Er wrote that the results were explosive: “The simple measures, no large events and an introduction of hygiene measures, are highly effective.” They had nearly stopped the epidemic and protected hospital from a potential collapse. But his words were not taken seriously at the time.

Tanja Stadler says she was surprised how one-sidedly the study was interpreted at time. She advocated for an open discussion about the measures the Federal Council took. But her verdict was: “The R value was at 2.1 before the lockdown and would not have sunk further without a change in measures.” Additional changes in behaviour or measures were necessary. But it is completely unknown, if people had just generally been more careful, even without a lockdown.

Sebastian Bonhoeffer is a professor for Theoretical Biology at the ETH and leads the data group Taskforce, of which Stadler is part too. He was asked, how he interpreted the already pre-lockdown sinking reproduction value and said: “Generally the population had adjusted their behaviour and reduced contact already [before lockdown] due to the dramatic situation in Italy. Plus, at that point large events had already been banned.

Schools did not need to close

At this point, it can be calculated which measures truly showed effect. This data too, comes from ETH. Stefan Feuerriegel, professor for Information Systems, and his team compared the effectiveness of various measures on new infections across 20 Western countries, including Switzerland.

Due to their international approach, they were able do divide clusters of measures into their component parts. In this way, they measure the relative effectiveness of a single measure. Therefore the study can actually calculate causality, not just correlation, i.e. connections in terms of content, not just time.

The results: Most measures led to a reduction in new infections by more than 30 %. But two measures showed clearly less effect. The closing of schools showed a reduction of only 8 %. Curfews showed an effectiveness of only 5 %.

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It was correct that Switzerland did not implement a lockdown similar to Italy or Spain. But it’s suggested that schools should have remained open. Feuerriegel says: “The measures all showed some effectiveness, but not at the same level”. But that wasn’t known then, as there was simply no past experience.

No lockdown in case of a second wave

In case it comes to a second wave, Feuerriegel considers further drastic measures unnecessary: “The population now knows what Social Distancing is. Just a small increase [in measures] can then lead to large effects.” So the lockdown seems to have had an educational purpose as well.

In general Feuerriegel is of the opinion that: “The debate over sense or nonsense of the measures is held at a pretty advanced level in Switzerland.” It also showed how important the collection of data was.

The ETH is a leader in data science. They have by now acknowledged the mistake in their communication. After they were contacted by this newspaper, they have removed their suggestion for a headline from their website.

Grundsätzlich findet Feuerriegel: «Die Debatte über Sinn und Unsinn der Massnahmen wird in der Schweiz auf einem sehr hohen Niveau geführt.» Dabei könne man auch feststellen, wie wichtig Datenerhebungen seien.

Disclaimer: I am against the Covid lockdowns. More reasonable measures could have been taken. Governments, media and social media created a hype and a panic where none was necessary. The lockdowns caused more harm then good in the long-term. We have all the data to prove that. Even though many countries have now loosened their measures, I still write and collect data to make sure something like this will never happen again.

I have no political affiliation. I am not an anti-vaxxer or government consipiracist. I am a well-educated, reasonable being. I advocate for people paying more attention to local government, local action according to local needs. I advocate for people leaving social media and come back to live in the real world, engage their brains and common sense.

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I am a scientist and writer. I aim to be a voice of reason and facts in this distorted world in which opinions are considered truth.

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