Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

When Scientists Lie

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 28, 2020 --  

Public health agencies in Washington and Geneva are misleading the public for the greater good.

When America's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending people wear face masks in public, it was a stunning reversal. For over two months, the agency had recommended exactly the opposite: "CDC does not currently recommend the use of face masks among the general public."1 But late in the day on April 3, after a White House press conference, the agency updated its FAQ to say, "CDC recommends that people wear a cloth face covering."2
Bank Employees in the Spanish Flu Pandemic
Source: National Post

What gives?

Look at any old photo of the 1918 influenza pandemic and you will see everyone is wearing a face mask. Look at any photo of Chinese cities during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic and you will see everyone doing the same. Everybody has known for over a century that respiratory droplets spread infectious respiratory diseases and that masks are an effective way of lowering the risk.

So why on earth did the CDC initially not join its counterparts around the world in advising the public to wear face masks?

Because some Americans had begun buying face masks in early January to protect themselves, and the CDC feared a shortage by medical professionals if the trend were to continue.3 Unlike East Asia, where it as long been common for people to wear surgical masks (if they either have the sniffles or just fear getting them), there has never been such a culture in America. As a result, retail stores and warehouses just didn't have enough to go around.

The CDC's answer to the problem was to convince the public they didn't need them. Their words weren't as hash as the "let them eat cake" quip long attributed to Marie Antoinette in response to starving peasants. But it was the same basic idea.

By the time the CDC was forced to reverse itself two months later, over 7,100 Americans were dead from the virus. Community transmission had infected 275,000 Americans, largely though the kind of respiratory droplets that face masks would have helped stop.4

Defenders of the CDC might argue the vast majority of those infections and deaths could never have been prevented by face masks --- simply because there weren't enough to go around. Its defenders might also argue that available face masks were best reserved for the health care professionals who were at the greatest risk.

It is much harder to argue, however, that an agency responsible for protecting the public from disease should intentionally mislead that public in a way that likely caused some to die. A lie is still a lie, even powerful people think is for the greater good.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the last lie that will be told. One of the latest whoppers comes from the World Health Organization, which said on Friday that there is "no evidence" that those who have recovered from a novel coronavirus infection are immune from being infected again.5

This audacious statement is intended to throw cold water on some governments' plans to issue immunity passports to those who have recovered from the disease or test positive for antibodies. The policy idea is that those who have recovered could help reopen the economy by doing what otherwise would be prohibited by physical distancing guidelines.

When you read the WHO's statement closely, it becomes obvious that it is a deliberately phrased half-truth intended to mislead. Of course there is no evidence that those who have recovered from the novel coronavirus are forever immune. The virus hardly existed five months ago. It would be utterly impossible to prove immunity with a long-term study.

But the consensus amongst infectious disease experts is that, yes, those who have recovered are immune, at least for a time. That's how the human immune system works. Those who have recovered from a virus like chicken pox, measles or even specific strains of flu and the common cold are usually immune for years. Only a compromised immune system or a genetic mutation that creates a new strain will change that.

And while there are documented cases where people who have recovered from novel coronavirus infections have been stricken again, the sceintific consensus is that those cases can be explained as relapses, not new infections6.

The reason the WHO is misleading the public is because it disagrees with the public policy of immunity passports. WHO leaders think that immunity passports are not as effective of a policy as maintaining existing physical distancing efforts.

While it's certainly legitimate for a health agency to disagree with a particular policy, the same can not be said for lying to the public. Any scientific agency that knowingly misleads to try and influence has betrayed its mission. At both the WHO and CDC, heads should roll.


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019 Novel Coronavirus Frequently Asked Questions and Answers, February 2 2020

2. Ibid., 2019 Novel Coronavirus Frequently Asked Questions and Answers, April 4, 2020

3. CNN Health, Stores in Central Texas are Running Out of Medical Masks aAter Possible Case of Coronavirus Reported, January 26, 2020

4. USA Today, Coronavirus Live Update, April 3, 2020

5. World Health Organization, "Immunity Passports" in the Context of COVID-19, April 23, 2020

6. Reuters, South Korea Finds Patients Testing Positive Post-Recovery From Coronavirus Barely Infectious, April 22, 2020