The T-Cell immune response that didn’t bark

T-Cell immune response (not to be confused with invulnerability) is hardly a new idea in public health. Yet what is striking is how long it took you to hear about it — from the mainstream at least — in the context of coronavirus.

If you go back to February, March, even April or dare I say May, you will not find too many mainstream public health commentators suggesting “there is some possibility of T-cell immunity playing a major role here. That could significantly ease the future casualties and economic burden of Covid-19.” David Wallace-Wells dates the beginning of the discussion to late May, and the “dark matter” hypothesis of Friston, though I believe earlier precursors will be found.

You didn’t even hear much of: “We really are not sure T-cell immunity is a factor. But it could be a factor with probability [fill in the blank], and it is worth keeping that in mind.”

The major New York Times piece on T-Cell immunity doesn’t run until August 6.  And the Wallace-Wells piece is dated August 9.

Think about the underlying equilibrium that could lead to such a strange result.

if you do public health, your status incentives are to deliver warnings, not potential good news.

Your status incentives are always to hedge your bets, and to be reluctant to introduce new hypotheses.

Your status incentives are to steer talk away from the virus “simply continuing to rip,” even if you are quite opposed to that outcome. Other than hitting it with an immediate scold, you are not supposed to let that option climb on to the discussion table for too long.

Your status incentives are to discourage individuals from thinking that they might be have some pre-existing level of protection. That might lead them to behave more irresponsibly, and then you in turn would look less responsible.

Since public health commentators are so concerned with “doing good by us,” they fail to see that their altruistic (and status) motives in these matters mean they do not end up telling us the truth. Not the entire truth, and not upfront in a very prompt matter.

To be fair, I don’t recall seeing mainstream commentators making false claims about T-cell immunity, rather their filters end up being very selective ones and they bring it up only slowly. And because they smush together in their minds the actually quite distinct concepts of “doing good,” “status,” and “informing the public,” they genuinely have no idea that they are not entirely on the side of truth.

And they genuinely have no idea why so many smart people look to “the cranks” for advice and counsel.

And, to be clear, the commentary of “the cranks” in this area has plenty of problems of its own, even though in some ways they have turned out to be a more informative (as distinct from accurate) source on T-cell immunity.

Finally, to recap, we still are not sure how much overall social protection T-cell immunity will bring. Furthermore, we are pretty sure that not many places have a chance of current herd immunity from “a mix of previous Covid exposure plus pre-existing T-cell immunity.”

So I am not trying to induce you to overrate the T-cell immunity idea. I am trying to illuminate the biases of the filters at work in your everyday consumption of Covid-19 information. Those biases too, the mainstream commentators are not so keen to tell you about.


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