Coronavirus would be worse without the web

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Scientific information about the coronavirus has spread around the world remarkably quickly, mostly because of the internet. The virus has been identified, sequenced, and tracked online, and researchers around the world are working on possible fixes. The possibility that the failed ebola drug remdesivir may help protect against the virus is now well known and the drug is being deployed. The notion of using an HIV cocktail plus some anti-flu drugs against the coronavirus also has been publicized online. The final word on those potential fixes is not yet in, but the internet accelerates the spread of knowledge, along with its application.

Researchers from India prematurely published a claim that the coronavirus resembles in some critical ways the HIV virus, and their presentation hinted at the possibility something sinister was going on. The online scientific community leapt into action, however, and very quickly the theory was struck down and a retraction came almost immediately. I saw this whole process unfold on my Twitter feed in less than a day.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of two possible downsides, first panic buying and second too much state-led “digital quarantine” of individuals.  In addition, I wish to thank @pmarca and also Balaji Srinivasan for some ideas relevant to this column.


The link

Thanks barclay - what would we do without the web? Just imagine how long that correction would have taken back in the dim days of 2015 or 2002.

Why visitors still use to read news papers when in this technological
globe all is existing on web?

The point is communications, not the web. SARS happened when the Internet was well established, and there are minimal differences in the Internet of today and the Internet of the Ebola crisis five years ago.

Might as well write that 4k video is a major reason detailed scientific information is so easy to transfer these days, the web having expanded its data transmission capacity..

Good point. Brazil's healthcare system has been elected the ninth best in the whole world in dealing with epidemics. Maybe we should learn with Docttor Mandetta, Brazil's Heathcare Minister, who has reformed Brazil's healthcare system.

Ex-China hand Prof. Balding is now propagating the idea that coronavirus has killed 100 times more people, due to some very large numbers accidentally published on a Tencent website. The reason being a big Chinese conspiracy to cover up the true numbers, though he "can't say for sure".

There have been some very high numbers published, but there's also the chance that the photo's were faked. It's easy to take alter the contents of a web site and it's not clear where the photo behind the story originated from.

;tldr There's an article saying the numbers are much worse but there's no 3rd party confirmation.

New Story:

"Hi. China here. I haven't tried to cover up the fact there is a serious disease outbreak, but I going to hide how serious it is so the rest of the world will be under prepared and give us less assistance than they otherwise would. This will absolutely destroy my credibility and prevent anyone from trusting me for decades. I am doing this because it makes so much sense."

"Hi China here,
An outbreak happened to us again. And in exactly the way everyone predicted it would - transfer from an animal in a crowded market place. That is very embarrassing (we're not a third world country anymore) and I hate being embarrassed so I'm not going to say anything...still not...still not...damn, words got out so I'll have to say something. What's the least I can say."

Sino Mouth wins this snark-off. +5 i.p.

This will absolutely destroy my credibility...

Hehe! Like China has credibility!

Yes. When it comes to foreign relations China has more credibility than the United States. The US can change this and draw level with China, but it will take time.

I should mention China's credibility has taken a battering due to its poorly implemented "belts and roads" initiative, but even allowing for this, the US has a considerable way to go.

...the actual risks of Coronavirus are vastly exaggerated and hyped by the news media and web social media.

On a planet of 6 billion people, Coronavirus infections/deaths are totally insignificant.
SARS was much more deadly, but it too was trivial worldwide.
Influenza is dramatically more widespread and deadly, but it generates no panic or dramatic quarantine efforts.

Your daily travel in an automobile is a huge risk (statistically) compared to Coronavirus risk -- it doesn't worry you at all.

Don't blink: the world's population is far closer to 8 billion than to 6 billion (well over 7.5 billion already, 7.8 billion according to estimates approximately as recent as the coronavirus outbreak.)

A competent statistician might be able to say how much of an increased transmission risk exists globally with a population of c. 8 billion vs. c. 6 billion.

This is not a logical response. Coronavirus has a fatality rate of around 2% and it's still growing at an exponential rate. There are signs that the quarantine is working and certainly most of the confirmed deaths have been restricted to the Wuhan area. However, the virus has spread all over China and is also exponentially increasing outside of China.

If you don't understand why that's a risk then you don't understand exponential growth.

Online growth graph:

@JW - right on. The R-naught value of Wuhan coronavirus might be as high as 4.0, compared to the common flu of 0.13 or so. Big difference, and it ten days Wuhan virus spreads much much faster.

As for TC's post, it's generally good but social scientists have found very few people change their mind even if given facts or information (and that includes in science). For example, the Allied forces in the Battle for Crete in WWII were given advance warning of the German parachutist assault (due to Enigma code cracking) but still could not stop the Germans; numerous such examples abound. Even the India and Thai scientific discoveries may just essentially be "publish or perish" publicity stunts IMO. Jury still out on Wuhan virus.

correction - R0 = 1.28 for common flu and 4.0 (speculated) on Wuhan virus, see @1:09 mark here: - difference is in 10 cycles you have nine people infected with the common flu and 262k with Wuhan virus

It's important to remember that the R0 value is the effective infectious rate and not an absolute value. So, the R0 rate could be very high in Africa, but very low in Scandinavia due to a difference in medical infrastructure OR conversely it could be low in Africa (if the the coronavirus doesn't spread as well in hot, wet environments) but high in Russian.

So, it's likely that the R0 value will actually vary according to population, location, etc.

One obviously dangerous location are airplanes. Here's a map showing the actual spread of SARs on an airplane:

For comparison SARs had a general R0 value of 3, which is comparable to nCov2019

;tldr If someone is symptomatic (coughing, sneezing, etc) , sit behind them on an airplane.

Ray, tbf, the invasion of Crete resulted in so many losses for the Germans, that they never again attempted a major parachute assault. Not sure why you are using Crete as an example of why few people change their minds - the Germans certainly did.

Some of them came down over the New Zealand 28th Battalion which was comprised of Maori volunteers. It didn't go well for the paratroopers.

@Nick_L, Crikey- yes I know that, but that decision not to use airborne troops was ex post, in view of losses. The point is that with such perfect information that Allied forces should never have let the Germans even land. It's true some details had to be kept vague so not to blow Enigma's cover, but still, it should have been a complete Allied victory. The reason it was not is that people selectively filter information to adjust to their 'world view'. Historian John Keegan says therefore that intelligence like Enigma thus did not "decide" the war but at best ended it sooner than without such intelligence. Another example: Unternehmen Barbarossa, June 6, 1941, Stalin had plenty of intel of the German attack but refused to believe or use it, and the attack wiped out most of his western front, Zhukov had to save his skin.

For the Battle of Crete I definitely think that, that looking at the forces on paper, the odds definitely appeared to be against the German attackers. Without hindsight without the advantage of surprise by the Germans I would expect the Allies to holdout, despite the fact the Germans had done extremely well in the war up to this point.

But anyone looking at German operational success up to that point definitely would have been worried and would not have considered it a sure thing because battles are always at home to Mr Cockup.

It's possible to make the same criticism about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The US had advanced warning so the Japanese should have have been able to inflict as much damage as they did. But the attack was extremely successful in terms of damage inflicted. This is because to err is human and the defenders were very human.

JW, if you know: are flight crews instructed to seat ANY symptomatic passengers to the FRONTS of their respective sections?

Was this practiced with SARS back in the day?

Equipping cabins with surgical tents to contain coughs and sneezes? (I assume the fabled N95 mask is for healthy persons, not for the symptomatic suffering from acute congestion.)

I've not flown in over fifteen years, but I still get mail and deliveries.

@EB - "I've not flown in over fifteen years, but I still get mail and deliveries." - the Wuhan coronavirus is speculated to live outside the body for many days or weeks, not just minutes like HIV. So those "Made In China" goods that some infected factory worker sneezed on...

From the CDC: "In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures."

I don't know much.

The symptoms are flu like for nCov2019. So coughing, sneezing, fever. I don't know if flight crews move passengers with the "flu" to the front row, I've never observed it happen. Also, it appears that nCov2019 can be transmitted before symptoms appear.

I believe flights have a Universal Precaution Kit:

Maybe somebody with expertise could provide more information.

A number of fresh perspectives represented here:

This coronavirus may yet be worse even with the web, given the amount of disinformation and misinformation that can circulate . . . rabidly.

@Edward Burke - thanks but nothing 'fresh' in this live update by CNBC, it's not much different than CNN. It's good but boring. To get the real scoop (speculative but good) see the below.

R0 = 1.28 for common flu and 4.0 (speculated) for Wuhan virus, see @1:09 mark here: - difference is in 10 cycles you have nine people infected with the common flu versus 262k with Wuhan virus

Ray, thanks for the info.

I'm not following so closely, so I pasted the CNBC link for anyone interested who didn't see it. (I did like the numerous segments of reportage bundled that way.) I'm still hitting the WHO site for each day's Situation Report update.

You're in the Philippines, correct? Stay well.

@EB - actually I'm in Greece now, in the mountains, taking care of some real estate, but we get Chinese tourists on occasion (not so many this year, but we got a few).

I find the counterfactual here useless and uninformative. I'm plenty old enough not to confuse "the web" with "the internet". I can see all sorts of worlds which don't have "the web" and in which information is rapidly disseminated. A BBS world comes to mind. Heck, I could even argue that such a world would have much much higher quality posts and so good information is even more effectively transferred. But basically, this kind of unfalsifiable tripe is worthless, imho.

Why are you not there if it is such a good way to communicate this information to many people?

His basic point concerns the Internet compared to the Web. I don't think various labs are transmitting their data over twitter, for example.

Whether it is particularly meaningful to point out that the Web is just a subset of the Internet is another subject, but it is quite likely that various information sharing exchanges are not being done over what Tyler considers to be the Web. A place where public intellectuals attempt to get more retweets as a measure of their influence on public debates.

Right, the internet spread both panic and the virus (5 million left Wuhan between the outbreak and the lock-down) and spread the information about the virus to scientists. One might argue whether the former is more significant than the latter.

Who panicked? People got out, and a few days later the city was sealed. It's perfectly rational for you to flee and avoid exposure, even if everyone outside the cordon would have liked to have left you to your fate.

That would be rayward

Another interesting article in Bloomberg today reports that the coronavirus death rate is 3.1% in the quarantined Hubei Province versus only 0.16% in the rest of China:

This tells me that most of the dangers from the coronavirus in fact come from global governments' overreactions to it. Shutting down public services and transportation led to people not being able to get food or medical attention, which is what is causing excess mortality. And that's just the people dying of coronavirus, not counting stories like that teenager with cerebral palsy who starved to death because his caretakers were under quarantine. Without these quarantines, we'd likely be seeing a mortality rate around 0.16% as it is outside of Hubei, not much worse than the normal seasonal flu. And we would not have the mass panic and economic disruption that is gripping the world.

@Zaua - "But Hubei -- known for its car factories and bustling capital Wuhan -- is paying the price, with the mortality rate for coronavirus patients there 3.1%, versus 0.16% for the rest of China." (article) - this is wrong. See the video link I posted upstream as to why. Common media mistake, as the video explains. It's because the "cycles" of mortality are sped up in Wuhan/Hubei, vs "outside of Hubei", that you get the higher 3.1% number. In other words, in a few weeks "outside of Hubei" will also cross the "3%" threshold (which anyway, as the video link I posted says, and as the Tencent 'pulled video' implies, see link above, is close to maybe 10% when all cycles finish).

Bonus trivia: the Black Death claimed up to 33% of the population and those people that survived enjoyed higher real wages for a while (until the centuries long deflationary trend reasserted itself)

"versus only 0.16% in the rest of China"

No, that's confusing mortality rate with fatality rate. Fatality rate is how many people died out of the entire population, Mortality rate is how many people with the virus died.

Here is what China is saying:

Mortality rate in Wuhan was 4.9%.
Mortality rate in the Hubei Province was 3.1%.
Mortality rate nationwide was 2.1%.
Fatality rate in other provinces is 0.16%.

I don’t think that’s true. 0.16% of China’s population would be over 2 million people. I don’t think 2 million people have died. A 2.1% national mortality rate is consistent with a 3% mortality rate in Hubei and a 0.2% mortality outside Hubei because 2/3rds of the cases so far are in Hubei.

+1, Actually I think you are correct. I'm not sure why they used Fatality instead of Mortality rate. Maybe a mistranslation.

But there are confirmed 8,421 deaths in China outside of Hubei and only 14 confirmed deaths.

14/8421 = 0.16%. Which is a death rate around that of the normal flu.

Of course deaths outside of China are
2/258 = 0.8% rate. But it's hard to draw significant conclusions from very small numbers.

Ok, I did some digging and it appears that the correct term should be CFR (case fatality rate) which is often referred to as Mortality.

The Mortality/CFR is an estimate on how many people are expected to die from the disease. Fatality rate in this case is clearly how many people have died so far.

So, the China CDC is reporting that:
0.16% of infections outside of Hubei have died so far but they expect the number to grow to 2.1% as patients that are in early stages die.

A bit of good news and a bit of bad news. Hopefully, the 2.1% estimate is actually high if proper medical care is available and Hubei was a worst case scenario.

Zaua, you are smarter than this.

Coronavirus death rate is 2.0%, as of today.

SARS (severe acute respiratory distress syndrome) epidemic of 2003-2004 had a 9.1% death rate).
That is over 4-times less risk from current Coronavirus , so what is all this panic about?

Hardly anyone is panicking but there's always a few. And frankly I like that some people are spending every moment looking at all the details so I don't have to.

No one's panicking but you are comparing the wrong numbers.

SARs infected about 8,500 people around the world total. That took about 8 months.

Coronavirus infected 4,400 additional people yesterday.

Mmm. Bad formatting. No edit button.

On the web there are many assertions that NCoV2019 only affects Asians.

Look at the previous SARS incidence in Canada. It is well known that EAS tend to live close together. Thus any EAS susceptible to SARS will catch it first. Any other spikes bigger and lagged the initial spike were most probably that SARS had spread to other populations. There were no major secondary spikes for China, HongKong, Macau or Taiwan.

By 1700, newspapers were widely distributed and they reported early warnings of plague.

Hare's a story about hacker types posting an illegal archive of papers about coronavirus:

A story. One of my customers is a chinese couple who own a resort. They work long hours and doing well. He immigrated from mainland China a while ago. After the Christmas rush he went to Shenzhen to visit his parents. He said the place is busy, never stops. The news of Wuhan hit, and the city was quiet. Almost no one on the streets, anyone out was wearing a mask. The flights started to bet cancelled, so he managed to get home. He was a long way from Wuhan, but the reaction to the news was sudden and vigorous. I don't think the people there trust the government, and when there was bad news their instant reaction was that it is very bad, far worse than they are told and they took measures.

I would expect the world economy to be affected by this. Even with the numbers still increasing I suspect the second order effects are going to be the most dangerous.

I am in two minds about how pandemics like this one fare in the post internet era. First Tyler is correct that there is a lot of collaboration going on that wouldn't have happened before. But on the contrary side, thanks to the availability bias that people have, plus worse case syndrome (someone mentions a worse case and this is then automatically the base case), there is a huge over-reaction. Cancelling flights and holidays for instance, and reduction in economic activity. In the old media environment we would have a small paragraph in the newspaper and none of this would be happening. There is sort of an evolution going on with data, with only the most scary data being distributed and calmer heads being ignored because who wants to share news that is boring. So 98% of the people discussing the subject (as can be seen in this comment thread) are people who have dramatic tendencies.

Actually the Global Warming issue is being handled more or less in the same way but on a slower pace. Anyone proposing more measured careful thinking about the problem is being drowned out by people with more alarmist measures, likely again leading to an over-reaction. Tyler shared an article on purity spirals in knitting circles a few days ago - this is really a new phenomenon that only can exist with the internet system of communication.

How long do we have to wait for Internet the Great Saviour and its free dissemination of scientific information to shut down the live animal markets in China? (And, relatedly or not, for those who care, the trade in endangered animal parts for the most superstitious and primitive of reasons ...)

This morning noticed a back-and-forth on NextDoor about hiring somebody with a cherrypicker to trim browned palm fronds. Some earnest person stated that bats sometimes roost in palm fronds, on the coast. Please don't trim the the palm fronds, they said. (While it is unlikely bats are so using the few palm trees here, no harm done with this information; and God knows palms really are not enhanced when trimmed like feather dusters.) Someone else replied to this by stating that bats spread coronavirus, bad bats.

Evidently, some read all, some read a little.

I think it's likely that the internet giveth and taketh away in equal measure.

As always, when you grant people the freedom to choose, you need to reckon somewhat in advance so as to be prepared for what they are going to choose; and it seems that half the people at any given time will choose to make themselves dumber.

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