Strategic News Service

This week, we're going to look at the COVID-19 virus story not from the perspective of what we know, but rather - and more important - what we do not know.

Yesterday a (non-technical) friend in the hospitality business asked me what I thought about the virus and its impacts. I told him the virus is like a mirror, with the epidemic(s) showing us things about our countries and ourselves that are both good and bad.

Clearly, a lack of good data would be at the top of the latter list.

While China's global propaganda machine has ramped into full steam ahead, praising Xi for his leadership, the rest of the world stands back in wonder at the lies, delays, firings, deaths, and overall inconsistency between Chinese states with regard to data reportage. I don't think our members will find anyone, inside or outside China, who believes the government's numbers. This lack of data integrity has been the largest impediment to global success in preventing and treating the disease.

Latent Variables

A review of what is known quickly shows holes that remain to be filled. Were we running all known parameters in an advanced machine learning system, it might be able to tell us that there are what are called "latent parameters" - in other words, the things that Donald Rumsfeld famously called "the unknown unknowns."

Let's look at them more closely:

  1. Detection. In China, DNA PCR tests were first used, giving one set of positives in Hebei and Wuhan. Then, suddenly, the government moved to imaging testing, and a day later added over 14,000 cases. But no other state did the same, leading to two types of data sets in China, with more in the Hebei set - not just because of proximity to Wuhan (ground zero), but because of test variation. Today, this national data set is essentially useless.

  2. Quality of test kits. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) managed to bungle the entire US response (see Part II below), in a series of breathtaking missteps. The first: the tests didn't work, generating false positives. Then the step showing the false positives was removed, but the remaining tests were only about 40% effective. No one else was allowed to test, so states and hospitals waited while the CDC struggled.

  3. Who can test. Throughout the world, the question of which level of political or medical facility can test has been a moving target. The result: little or no consistency between testing sets.

  4. Who does test. Many nations have reported deaths before illnesses. They were simply not testing previously. The US, Iran, Myanmar, Russia, and many other countries are in this category.

The result of these data problems is that we do not have some of the most basic parameters regarding the virus. (See "SNS: "It Isn't Just the Virus: Financial Impacts of R0," 2/3/20.)

Amid rumors of reinfection, for example, the CDC has offered its opinion that reinfection is unlikely. But it is clear that some patients - one of whose tests twice showed the patient to be virus-free - later tested positive and needed to be again hospitalized. There is no explanation for this to date.

Some patients testing positive show symptoms, while others do not.

The incubation period appears to be in the five- to eight-day range, but as a sign of how little we (or the CDC) know, its website uses SARS figures, almost certainly different.

The virus can exist on flat surfaces for wildly varying times measured thus far: a few hours on stainless steel, longer on surfaces such as plastic or cardboard. One German study has it at almost 24 days.

Finally, there is a lack of useful metrics by which to gauge the transition of each state's state: on the way up, nearing the peak, getting better. We need this for states, the country, and the world. Next week, we'll hope to have these in place for our members.

Let's hope that the mirror of this virus is not broken, as the Chinese Communist Party's version is, but rather that the world can soon consolidate reliable data sets that will allow us to better understand, and then control, the spread of COVID-19. Ultimately, it is not the spread of the virus that threatens the world, but the spread of fear.

By John Anderson