By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 24/12/2020

Heading into Christmas in Aotearoa this year feels like living in a parallel universe.

Tomorrow Kiwis will celebrate Christmas without thinking much about COVID-19, if at all. No tallying how many people are allowed to dinner, worrying about getting granny sick, or having immunocompromised loved ones stuck home alone.

At last count, there are 49 cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand – all safely quarantined at the border. Life outside of MIQ continues as normal: we get haircuts, hug friends, talk loudly over music at Christmas parties, and do our grocery shop with little to no queues (except today: I’m told the supermarkets are heaving).

Meanwhile, the UK, Germany, and Italy have gone into strict lockdown over the holidays, and our friends over in Sydney’s northern beaches are coping with a community outbreak.

We really don’t know how lucky we are.

And yet, a few days ago the self-proclaimed ‘Plan B’ team published an already outdated letter in the Journal of Primary Health Care – published by the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners. The online version calls it a research article – but this appears to be a mistake, and on the PDF it’s a letter.

In it, the authors argue that New Zealand’s attempts to eliminate COVID-19 threaten our domestic economy and “prevent our workforce from supporting their livelihoods and our economy”. They explicitly call on the Prime Minister and Director-General of Health to “abandon elimination as a strategy and the use of lockdowns”.

“How many more lockdowns, billions of dollars and social and health harm is an acceptable price to pay before this misguided and expensive strategy is abandoned?”

I, like the authors, am not an infectious disease epidemiologist; therefore, I will leave the technical rebuttals to the experts. However, I do know how to read a research paper and smell bullshit – so here are my concerns.

A quick look at the author list shows a strange – yet for this team, not surprising – addition: Mark Blackham, of Blackham PR. (Another co-author appears to be a cosmetic physician.)

It’s concerned me since the first emergence of Plan B that they so quickly teamed with a PR company. After all, six of the letter’s nine authors work at New Zealand universities, all of which have extensive and competent communications teams that could advise and support them. Why the need to so quickly seek external support?

As an aside, in 2020 if you’re publishing papers with all male authors – that’s a deliberate decision (although, I don’t know any qualified women who’d want to hitch their wagon to this team).

In fact, I have no doubt that if a woman was spouting these opinions, she would be told to stick to her knitting. Dr Siouxsie Wiles was repeatedly dismissed despite her expertise in infectious microbes and her decade plus experience communicating the science around such topics.

I also note the authors declare no competing interests, which is questionable given they are actively soliciting donations on their website. I’d say that’s a competing interest.

A key sign of a good scientist is the ability to change your opinion in the face of superior evidence. Sometimes you’re wrong, and if you continue wrongheadedly to champion your pet theory when all evidence points to the opposite, you’re doing science poorly.

I say this because Plan B has publicly claimed waiting for a vaccine is a “fantasy” that would be years away. That makes it a wee bit awkward that in between submitting this letter (5 Nov) and it being accepted (5 Dec), a slew of vaccine news came out, including multiple successful candidates and the first authorisations for vaccinations to commence.

The authors added an addendum to their letter, acknowledging their estimate that “a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 is at best four years away, with the more likely timeframe a decade or more” was wrong. (In very poor form, they cite “many experts” behind the four year plus claim then link to a news article quoting one person – that wouldn’t pass a sniff test in an undergraduate essay). Further, they initially suggested “a vaccine may never eventuate”. Oops.

But no mea culpa follows. They quickly brush off this mistake and pivot immediately to questioning safety. Again, I note none of these authors appear to have any particular expertise in vaccinations or vaccine safety. Neither do I: rather, I turn to Dr Helen Petousis-Harris who – writing for Newsroom – says:

Remember, we have a robust regulatory process that will be monitoring these vaccines very, very closely and they will not hesitate to call a halt if they have any concerns.”

Today my Twitter feed shows many people frustrated by this letter and its publication – I’m also frustrated but I don’t blame the journal for publishing it. The scientific process needs room for contrarian views to be sounded out and responded to, but that doesn’t mean those claims should go unchallenged. Journal letters often aren’t peer reviewed – you’d hope a reviewer would have picked up many of the issues – so it’s no surprise that’s how this has been published.

Given one of the cries from the Plan B groups is that they are being censored (despite featuring on most, if not all, of our major news outlets during the year), not publishing such a letter could do as much harm as publishing it. Rather, the journal provided an opportunity for Ministry of Health chief science advisor Dr Ian Town to respond to the letter, which he did in a measured and thorough manner.

What does Plan B want? I’m not entirely sure and I certainly question their motives. Is it contrarianism for the sake of it? Are they desperately trying to stay relevant in a year where everything’s revolved around one topic? The involvement of a PR company makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up and I remain cynical that there might be some underlying motive.

But for now, I’m going to spend Christmas with my family and will think of all the people around the world celebrating the holiday season in lockdowns, hoping that all the hard work will pay off and they too can live the relatively normal life we’ve enjoyed in Aotearoa for most of the year.

Featured image: Jason Mowry on Unsplash