Coronavirus pandemic has exposed impact of politics on science - Professor Glenda Gray
Pretoria - The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the impact of politics on science, says outspoken president of the SA Medical Research Council, Professor Glenda Gray.
She spoke of how the government’s shutdown information was shared and an unwillingness to provide precise information on the spread of the virus, while some politicians propagated suspect treatment interventions.
Gray was speaking at a virtual University of Pretoria symposium on the scientific and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. She was part of the disbanded ministerial advisory committee which advised Health Minister Zweli Mkhize and the government.
In May she bumped heads with Mkhize when she was critical about lockdown, saying that while scientists offered good advice, this was not always regarded, asking why have experts if one did not care what they think.
The symposium on Friday looked at how governments, not only in SA, often said they were making decisions “based on science” but that science was not made available to the public.
Gray emphasised that evidence-based decision-making and the role of science had been the central theme to this pandemic but, the strength of biomedical evidence has been “in variable shades of grey”, and transmission dynamics articulated were often wrong.
She made an example of how scientists and the World Health Organization acknowledged much later into the pandemic that this virus could be airborne and not only transmitted through droplets and other modes of transmission, such as being on surfaces.
“In terms of medical science we have seen how politics has interfered with the development of interventions, and we have seen how drugs have been repurposed from other drugs, and other interventions have been posed as alternatives”.
Gray used the example of the SANDF finding itself in hot water for allegedly hiding R200 million spent on a Cuban Covid-19 treatment (Interferon-Alpha-2B drug) that the health department banned from being used to treat symptoms of the virus.
“With vaccine developments, we’ve seen some controversy around vaccines and how vaccine developments have occurred, and in some areas the lack of data into design of phase one and phase two of clinical trials, and the whole interaction between the USA, China and Russia in terms of vaccine development.”
She said the pandemic also presented governments with a platform to show that they are in power by implementing lockdown, restrictions and regulations.
This was despite the fact that, in some instances, the government sent out mixed messages such as asking people not to visit their families but granting them permission to congregate, and also encouraged social distancing but allowed taxis to load to 100% capacity.
She said there was also plenty of controversy in trying to predict the future of the pandemic. However, she thought one of the most controversial interventions was public health interventions and the evaluation of non-biomedical interventions to prevent transmission.
“We have also seen the natural history of disease in children and people not taking that into account and keeping schools closed even though we know that at a global level, children were less likely to be affected for a whole range of reasons, particularly children younger than the age of 12 who are less likely to be contagious.
“So, not understanding the transmission dynamics really impacted on our ability to keep schools open,” said Gray.
Gray said in some countries, policies masqueraded as science through lockdown strategies. However, she acknowledged that in South Africa the initial lockdown did help flatten the curve, to buy time to prepare the health sector and to bring in help, while the ban of alcohol and the curfew reduced unnecessary deaths and hospitalisations.
This, however, could be posited against the cons of lockdown, such as its impact on the economy, the corruption that resulted (from purchase of PPEs and other interventions) and the loss of months of schooling and the disruption of school-feeding schemes.