When Boris learnt about peer reviews
Yesterday, we learnt that Pfizer is moving fast with the coronavirus vaccination and they see 90% effectiveness. It is not clear exactly what this news means as the company has not released any data yet. On the surface of it, it sounds like good news.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed the news but he remained cautious because he didn’t want to create false expectations to the society; a stance that you would say is appropriate for a leader. He said,
“The Pfizer/BioNTech Vaccine has been tested on over 40,000 volunteers and interim results suggest it is proving 90 per cent effective at protecting people against the virus. But we haven’t yet seen the full safety data, and these findings also need to be peer-reviewed,”
So, now we learn that Boris knows that scientific research (especially when it impacts whole nations and generations) needs to be validated by peer scientists in an effort to minimise the possibility that it is wrong, inaccurate or irrelevant. After all, when you stand in front of cameras, saying something like this makes you sound like you understand the ins and outs of scientific research and that you know what you are talking about.
When I heard his statement, one thought flooded my brain (or whatever is left after the total brain destruction we all are being subjected to during the last 7 months): does the Prime Minister (and the Health Secretary and SAGE) know that the Imperial College model that appeared in the infamous Report 9 and lead to the first lockdown had not been peer reviewed at the time? Does he know that he led the whole country to the lockdown and put whole generations in psychological amok based on a draft version of a paper?
Unfortunately, the model (a later version of it to be accurate) has been peer reviewed since then; and, I say unfortunately because it is a code base full of extremely poor coding practices, bugs, shady calculations and irreproducible results. We know this because professional software developers who work for Google, Microsoft and the likes and expert modelers from the insurance industry looked at it and have been very critical. Even the British Computer Society (BCS) commented on the code albeit in a very politically correct way.
I will only mention for those who know about programming, that it is written in C. Yes, in pure old C. Not C++, R or Python which is what you expect to see in academia and in modelling but in pure C. It gets even better. Take a moment to think who has written this code. It is not professional modelers or developers with expertise but academics in epidemiology and public health. I think it is reasonable to conclude that they must know a great deal about epidemiology and public health but you wouldn’t expect them to write top-notch software. This may be fine when the model and the code are part of a BSc or MSc dissertation but it is not even OK if it defines the future of the whole society and the country. I will not go into further details here. If you want to read more about the model, a good place to start is this, this and this trilogy.
Back to Boris and his response to the news about the vaccine. As we said, he is very careful and takes baby steps with it. He says: “Let’s first confirm the effectiveness and then we move on”. This is what he says but it appears that in reality he is more confident that this. Otherwise, how can you explain that the UK government has already ordered £40 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine according to this article? If I could figure it out, I would be the Prime Minister 🙄
Note: I am amazed by the extent of celebration about the vaccine results by news outlets, channels, scientists and politicians. The World Health Organisation (WHO) in the beginning of the pandemic was predicting that coronavirus fatality rate could go above 20%. In their latest research, they calculated that the fatality rate is between 0.5%-1.0%. Isn’t this a reason to celebrate and rethink the way we manage the pandemic (if there is still such thing with such low rates)?