misreporting covid

COVID-19 is devastating India. On 19th May, India reported more COVID-19 deaths in one single day than any other country throughout the crisis. That’s over 300,000 confirmed deaths in total. As it’s reported that the Ganges – India’s holiest river – is bloated with bodies, the current death toll figure is almost certainly an underrepresentation.

News of the Indian variant’s arrival in the UK was understandably concerning. This concern was quickly disseminated to the public via media headlines, such as “Indian strain could be ‘50% MORE infectious & spark much larger third wave’, new Sage docs warn”. The source for this information was a scientific paper presented at a Sage meeting which read that there was a “realistic possibility” that the Indian variant was 50% more transmissible than the highly contagious Kent variant responsible for the UK’s winter surge in cases. This is undoubtedly startling, but there is more than meets the civilian eye. ‘Realistic possibility’ is a technical phrase used on a sliding scale by the Sage committee. Put in its appropriate context, this phrase means that there is a 50/50 chance that the Indian variant is as much as 50% more contagious than the Kent variant. 

This is a very different story than that represented in the headlines, likely because reporters did not grasp the full scientific meaning behind ‘realistic possibility’. There’s more. Public Health England also presented data that suggests that the variant is not having the same effect on every UK region. For example, the variant has a significant presence in one London area, but the same high rate of infection is not being seen in that area as in Bolton, another Indian variant hotspot. There’s also the possibility that an influx of cases arriving from India caused a spike that is appearing as higher contagiousness. Professor Neil Ferguson has also commented that the infection curve is flattening. Time is needed to assess the full picture, but this would mean that the 50% figure of increased contagiousness is too high.

The bottom line is this: we don’t have the full story yet on the Indian variant. The data is also far more complex than captured by the media. Equally, where was the media discourse about the true meaning of ‘realistic possibility’? It’s apparent meaning appears to have been simply slapped onto an alarmist headline. ‘Realistic possibility’ to untrained ears equates high likelihood. Where was the responsible reporting? This isn’t to undermine the severity of the Indian variant or the degree to which it must be closely monitored. It’s simply a matter of media sticking to the facts and not jumping any guns. Whilst we shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on unclear information, we must take action on the data that we do have clarity on. For example, we know that obesity can triple the risk of hospitalisation from COVID-19; is anything being done? We also know that the vast majority of patients in Bolton who have been hospitalised with the Indian variant were eligible for the vaccine, but refused it. Why is the same media attention not being paid to these key insights? Where is the context-specific analysis?

If the past few months have taught us anything it’s that we will see new variants, and we won’t always immediately have the clear picture; the media headlines can’t explode into panic every time they arrive.