Contact tracing is now a central part of most government agendas in the monitoring and control of the COVID19 outbreak. It involves widespread tracing, testing and isolation. Is it too late for this strategy and does this level of monitoring and surveillance pose a threat to our privacy?
- The virus has already peaked in many countries and so far there is no evidence of a ‘second wave’.
- Evidence shows that the tests are not reliable. What is the point of using both viral and antibody tests if their effectiveness is open to question? Also, what do increased numbers of infections mean in terms of Public Health if 80% of people testing positive show no symptoms?
- The contact tracing programme involves the collection of DNA by public and private organizations and relies on them to protect the data they collect.
- Laws are already in place that allow forced testing and quarantine. Does that compromise our fundamental civil liberties?
- Contact tracing, in conjunction with a vaccine, may be used as part of the suggested programme for an “immunity passport”, which will be used to restrict the freedom of movement of all people.
- Will contact tracing become an integral part of ongoing surveillance without wider discussion?
Has the virus peaked?
According to the classic model of Farr’s Law, which states that infectious diseases, left to their own devices, have a natural cycle of peaking and then declining, the disease peaked in China by the end of January. Using this model, evidence shows that the cycle of COVID19 runs on a two month cycle, with a peak after one month and a slow decline during the following month. This is an important consideration worth noting, which would essentially make the extensive plans for contact tracing redundant.
It is crucial to look at the mortality rate from COVID19 and not just new cases. More testing identifies more cases, but the vast majority will not have symptoms. Evidence shows that mortalities were declining in most countries BEFORE lockdown was imposed and also that the disease was present in Europe before it was formally recognized. According to research published by J.P. Morgan, cases have continued to decline in countries once lockdown was lifted. The article claims that in the UK the peak of cases occurred around March 18th, and before lockdown, and according to other analyses, it was even earlier.
The number of positive cases is being used to justify the continuation of lockdown or the threat to reintroduce it until widespread contact tracing can be established, followed by the hope of a vaccine. There should be serious concerns for both. On 4th June, Matt Hancock, the UK Health Secretary stated that the full implementation of Contact Tracing will not be ready till September. All experience with viruses like a corona virus, indicates that it will have left the population before September and the biggest concern recently voiced by the vaccine developers, is that it will have disappeared before the fast tracked vaccine is ready.
What about reliability of the tests
There are widespread concerns that both the test for presence of the virus itself, the RT-qPCR test, and the serology antibody test to evaluate whether a person has already been exposed to the virus, are both limited in their reliability. False negatives and false positives have commonly been found with the PCR tests. The founder of PCR testing, Nobel prize winner Dr Kary Mullis warned against them being used as an exclusive diagnostic tool. Companies are now producing new rapid forms of PCR testing which may make them even less reliable. Serology antibody tests are also fraught with inaccuracy and may test positive to other corona virus exposures, like the common cold. Additionally, it is being reported that the antibody response may not last long and following tests will not detect antibodies. Current research has identified a strong and lasting T-cell response which provides immunity even in the absence of antibodies. This calls into question the validity of antibody testing and the focus of vaccine developers on measuring antibody levels as proof of efficacy.
The ongoing controversy regarding the number of COVID19 deaths is that in many cases, those deaths are attributed to COVID19 when in fact tests were not done to confirm this or the tests didn’t work and were discounted. Also, there is the question of whether the patient died FROM COVID19 or WITH COVID19. In America, the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) stated that deaths should be attributed to COVID19 if it was “presumed to have caused or contributed to death.” The same has been happening in the UK. UK doctors were encouraged to use their “clinical judgement” in the absence of a positive COVID19 diagnosis. Our blog post: Ten Reasons to End Lockdown Now, highlights Dr John Lee’s article in the UK Spectator, and makes the case that deaths due to COVID19 are likely to be greatly over-inflated. The Off-Guardian article, our blog posts in the Numbers section, and the crisis in care homes, brings up many examples where there are serious questions about how the numbers are being analysed. This is crucial because these numbers are being used to justify government policy across the world.
Contact, trace, test, isolate: will it work and at what risk
The goal to roll out mass testing programmes by governments and supported by World Health Organization mandates, may profoundly impact millions of people, impinge on fundamental liberties and grossly inflate the significance of a positive test, whether from the RT-qPCR test designed to identify if a person is “actively” infected, or by an antibody test, designed to measure if a person has developed some immunity from a “prior” infection. Both tests have flaws in accuracy and the entire contact tracing strategy is based on the assumption that the virus will not disappear but will remain a threat for the foreseeable future.
Contact, test, trace and isolate has become a central strand of the unlocking strategy and is the formal WHO policy, despite being rejected, along with social distancing and lockdown, as a useful option in the WHO 2018 pandemic preparedness report. In the UK, the government has rolled out a new Covid Alert System which will work with the new NHS contact tracing app. This app was trialled recently in the Isle of Wight where 40% of the population downloaded it onto their phones. According to a Guardian article on May 18th, there have already been challenges with both the app and the rolling out of the programme, and the UK Spectator reports that it is still nowhere near ready. This app, or similar ones created by Apple and Google, identify people who may have been in contact with a infected person. The UK app works with a central database, linked to contact tracers who can give advice on the phone. If a person notifies the NHS that they have symptoms of COVID19, then anyone in contact with that person will be warned they may have been in contact with a positive case of COVID19. The sick person is then tested and if positive, all their contacts will be notified and told to isolate for 14 days. The Google and Apple apps work in a similar way but have a more decentralized system, as do the apps being used in other countries, including Germany, which abandoned a centralized system. There should be a concern about privacy of information for all these apps. For the app to be successful, 60% of the British public would have to download and use it. The government have indicated that they will use this app to assess whether renewed lockdowns need to be imposed in specific areas. It makes the assumption that the possibility of ongoing lockdowns are relevant and does not make clear how many “new” cases would justify that action.
The question about the privacy of the data being collected applies to both government and private companies. The evidence so far is not good. The UK NHS had a significant security breach of the data collected in the Isle of Wight trial, and contravened the data protection laws of 1.6 million patient records in a contract with Deep Mind, an AI company developing an app.
In the US there are plans to go door to door testing, and where positive, taking people from their homes to quarantine centres to prevent contamination of other family members . This was outlined in a speech by Dr Robert Levin, Public Health Officer in Ventura County, California. The “contact investigators” will have the power to test people in their homes and then, based on the result, decide on what measures need to be applied. It is not totally clear how this will pan out in reality and whether people will accept this level of interference, but this was implemented in China. There is talk of making the tests mandatory. The Governor of Washington State warned that people would not be allowed to leave their homes, even for essentials, if they refuse to be tested. Although in the US, the plans are now to prioritize workers and the most vulnerable, the CDC has stated that anybody can be tested.
On May 1st H.R.6666, the TRACE, Testing, Reaching and Contacting Everyone Act has been submitted to the US House of Representatives and seeks to give $100 billion for the tracing and monitoring of the US public. The bill creates a federally funded “health force”, an army of contact tracers that will work in mobile health units going to private homes, or from local centres in schools, libraries and other public places. The overall goal is simple. If someone tests positive (even without symptoms) they are to be quarantined (at home or in special facilities), for 14 days, even though there is increasing evidence that positive but asymptomatic people will not pass the disease on. All contacts of that person are then tested, isolated and if positive quarantined. In this way, everybody could eventually be tested, or at least a large percentage of the population. The bill suggests a budget of up to $100 billion is to be spent in 2020, just for the testing! The implications for US citizens are daunting. A new cadre of “health police” will be allowed to enter your home, test, and where positive, isolate and quarantine you, despite the fact that the tests are known to be unreliable and you may not ever show any symptoms.
The proposed H.R.6666 is extreme and apparently based more on fear than rational science. It takes the questionable and still unproven lockdown strategy to extraordinary lengths, attempting to hunt down and isolate the virus using draconian and invasive tracing, testing and isolating, including enforced quarantine, with no option to refuse the test.
The UK and other European countries have already passed similar laws that allow governments to test, treat and isolate members of the public without their consent. In many of the “Emergency” laws, including the UK’s Corona Virus Bill, all normal democratic rights have been suspended. Even as a threat, these laws are intimidating. The right to choose what you do with your own body was still a fundamental human right until COVID19. For the government to argue, that it has the right to impose on its citizens any medical treatment in the name of public safety, there has to be a very strong argument. At this point, in relation to COVID19, governments have not made that case.
Other countries in Europe are producing their own contact tracing apps and if used appropriately, simply to monitor infected people and ensure they are not vulnerable, then it may serve its purpose. However, the question of forced quarantine in the case of a positive test is a huge concern. It was done in China and a less strict version in South Korea where it focused on those with moderate or serious symptoms. Even though the UK is not considering this now, it is possible it could change in the future as countries look to see what happens in the US. Ongoing “health” surveillance of the population is being planned, and the laws to support it are already in place. The idea that we will be living with an app that monitors who we are in contact with, at all times, must create huge questions for societies all over the world. Is this the kind of world we want to live in? Is this really needed given the fact that the impact of COVID19 is, after six months in global circulation, still less than an average flu season ( 400,000 deaths worldwide), and so far has barely affected Africa.
UK is late to the game
In the UK, widespread testing has apparently been ramped up since the beginning of May, although there are serious questions about Health Secretary, Matt Hancock’s assertion that they will be carrying out 100,000 tests a day. Many of the tests were sent to people’s homes and it wasn’t clear if they were returned and analyzed, and some people were tested more than once, as the results were unclear. The next phase, the test, track and trace programme, was due to roll out in Mid-May. However, that has now run into problems: the app is not working properly, newly employed contact tracers have turned up for online training that has not materialised, and workers scheduled for shifts have waited for instructions that have not arrived. When the workers complained they were reassured they would still be paid for two week’s work at £10 an hour. Furthermore there is no coordinated strategy within the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland and Scotland are taking different approaches. The NHS app requires people to notify the contact tracers if they experience symptoms. Other apps work in a more active way, relying on actual testing. An app that sends warning messages out about possible contacts is also fraught with problems, risking increased anxiety from the constant alerts or just being ignored. Issues with availability and speed of testing remain, not to mention the accuracy of the tests. In other words, there are still serious hurdles to be overcome, there is evidence that the virus is already fading and the latest estimate for a fully operational app is not until September. If there is no virus remaining, will the Contact Tracing Programme still be rolled out? An article in the UK Spectator suggests that although the Contact Tracing programme is very unlikely to work and is basically unnecessary, it may at least alleviate the fear and paranoia that the lockdown has imposed on the British people. It is also worth considering that this is taxpayers money moving into private pockets, for a programme that may never work successfully and which might already be redundant as far as COVID19 is concerned. The current market for health data is like the California Gold Rush, billions of dollars are changing hands as technology moves into the arena of health.
Immunity passports. What would this mean?
The possibility of an “immunity passport” in order to travel has been publicly raised in interviews by Bill Gates. The certificate would be issued to people shown to be immune by an antibody test, or vaccinated against COVID19, when and if it is ready. This proposal must raise serious questions. Can it be done at airports as a way of avoiding the need for quarantine on arrival in a country? How would this work? Would a new vaccine be mandatory to travel, as Gates has suggested? What does it mean to be able to pass the immunity test with tests that are known to be unreliable? What if a healthy person with a strong immune system has not been infected, despite contact with the virus? Can that person travel? It would seem strange to penalise a person because of their healthy status. There is also the more fundamental issue of forcing the entire global population to have the vaccine for a disease that does not produce symptoms in 80% of those infected. It is currently being discussed by airlines whether some form of ID verifying one’s “status” would be needed in order to travel by plane. Again, this brings up both practical and legal concerns.
The idea of an immunity passport has been linked to an individual digital biometric ID, which would include immunity/vaccine status and be needed for any kind of travel. Before this is dismissed as too far fetched, it is a publicly stated aim of Bill Gates, founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and also an investor in many vaccine projects worldwide. In a recent interview with Chris Anderson on “CBS This Morning” and released by TED Talks, Bill Gates stresses that all US states should be made to impose a lockdown, and when asked when it would be possible to open them up again, said “….activities like mass gatherings, may be, in a certain sense more optional. And so, until you’re widely vaccinated those [activities] may not come back at all”. In an Op-Ed by the Washington Post on March 31st, he stated lockdown should last “10 weeks or more.” “Eventually we will have some digital certificates to show who has recovered or been tested recently, or when we have a vaccine, who has received it,” and that this certificate would be needed, for example to travel.
There has been talk of a new group of people termed “immune privilege” or being a “covid-elite” if they have antibodies and therefore can travel freely. This is a new suggestion, but it seems deeply undemocratic to prevent people not in the group, from moving freely in order to “protect” them just in case the virus is around. The idea of an immunity passport makes a presumption that everyone needs testing, that the antibody test is effective, which is not clear, and that antibodies will still be detectable after COVID19 has passed, which, according to research, is not itself a measure of immunity. This would mean that repeated antibody tests may be needed, implying an ongoing global monitoring programme for all travellers.
The other rationale being given for an immunity passport is in the event of a safe and effective vaccine given to the entire global population. This would require mandatory laws to be passed and enforced and a mechanism to be put in place to show that a vaccine has been given. Bill Gates and others have made it clear they believe a mandatory vaccine is a necessary route out of the current COVID19 situation. Given Gates’ and his foundation’s considerable influence in the WHO (he is their second largest donor), organizations like the Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Initiative (CEPI) also funded by the Gates’ foundation and his investments/donations into vaccine companies, Gates has disproportionate influence over global health policy. Microsoft, the company Gates co-founded, is part of an organization called ID2020, that is seeking to create a global biometric ID program for all 7.5 billion of the world’s citizens. It is currently being trialled in India, Pakistan and Malawi.
A vaccine for all, with verification using a digital biometric ID, would be necessary to show for travel and according to the ID2020 project, for other fundamental activities.
RT-qPCR testing may be important to confirm a diagnosis of COVID19, to monitor the number of cases and also to test workers who may expose vulnerable people to the infection. Antibody testing may not achieve much at all in terms of controlling COVID19, unless it is part of much larger agenda to monitor individual immunity. However, the WHO’s mandate to trace, test, treat and isolate everyone who may have had exposure to the virus, as a mechanism to support containment of transmission of COVID19, still looks like becoming part of the landscape as we move out of lockdown. How long it will last and whether people are willing to comply with this remains to be seen. The question arises, what if, or according to the experience of other countries, when the virus disappears? Do the contact tracers and the testing mechanisms also disappear or do they become part of the “New Normal” we are told is on its way? H.R.6666, the proposed law in the US, would be an extensive and dramatic roll out of the testing strategy with the potentially grave implications for civil liberties, as would the digital biometric ID with a mandatory vaccine needed for travel. We should be seriously thinking about these things now, before agreeing to participate in a contact tracing programme.