In-Depth: Infectious disease experts push back against study claiming COVID lockdowns had no effect

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Posted at 6:30 PM, Feb 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-04 21:30:00-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) – Infectious disease experts are pushing back against a study that claims pandemic restrictions had “little to no effect” on reducing COVID deaths, saying the research was deeply flawed.

The paper has generated a lot of attention online. The study was written by three economists, including one from Johns Hopkins University. The research was not sponsored or endorsed by the university itself.

The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, claims “lockdowns” in Europe and the United States only reduced COVID-19 deaths by 0.2 percent during the first wave in 2020.

Another study, peer reviewed and published in Nature, estimated that pandemic restrictions saved at least 3 million lives during the first wave in Europe alone.

“Asking people to stay at home, limiting gathering, we saved a lot of lives. I have no doubt in my mind. Millions of lives were saved by these mandates,” said Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

The controversial paper, by economists Jonas Herby, Lars Jonung, and Steve H. Hanke of Johns Hopkins, is what’s called a meta-analysis. The authors ran a big internet search through the academic literature for terms like “COVID” and “deaths,” then whittled down the results to based on a set of criteria.

Out of an initial batch of more than 18,590 studies, Hanke and his co-authors based their conclusions on 34 papers. They minimized or excluded papers written by epidemiologists, arguing that ones written by economists or political scientists should receive more weight because of their expertise in public policy.

“To say that I don’t trust it because epidemiologists wrote it and I really value what an economist writes, is really not what meta-analyses are about,” said UC San Diego professor Dr. Robert Schooley, who serves as editor of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

The next issue, Schooley said, is the study’s definition of a “lockdown.” The authors considered a lockdown to mean any “mandate that directly restrict[s] peoples’ possibilities.” That definition includes shelter-in-place orders, mask requirements, limits and gathering size, and other restrictions, the authors said.

“If you put all those studies together in one big bucket, those studies in which a ‘lockdown’ was very mild would make it look like it didn’t matter,” said Dr. Schooley.

The economists also excluded studies that explored the timing of government lockdowns. The authors explain that decision at length, but Dr. Mokdad said the timing of shelter-in-place orders is a critical factor in their success. Some states acted too late.

In some regions, government officials announced stay-at-home orders when a large portion of their population was already staying at home. Studies that don’t adjust for mobility data could be skewed, he said.

“To not account in your analysis for the impact of mandates on one indicator, say mobility in this case, you’re gonna do the analysis totally wrong,” he said.

Both experts pointed to China as evidence that stay-at-home measures can dramatically reduce COVID deaths. After an initial spike in cases in the early weeks of the pandemic, China has had the lowest COVID-19 death rate of any large nation, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID tracker.

Meta-analyses have been wrong before. A published study exploring ivermectin as a COVID treatment was retracted after researchers learned some of the data was fabricated.