In an otherwise depressing week, two pieces of very good news emerged from India.
In Mumbai, blood tests conducted by the city authorities on 6,936 randomly selected people found that some 40 per cent had coronavirus antibodies. Just 6,000 deaths have been reported so far in a city of 20 million.
A similar exercise in Delhi (population 29 million) found that around a quarter had had the virus. Only 3,300 deaths have been attributed to Covid-19.
Indian experts are clear about what these figures mean. Asymptomatic infections are a high proportion of the total. Further, the virus death rate is “very low”, to quote the Mumbai study.
These studies fit in with a mounting body of evidence that the virus is nowhere near as deadly as first thought. Even the cautious Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America has revised its estimate of the mortality rate down to 0.26 per cent — comparable to a bad influenza year.
Casting our minds back to the middle of March, the picture seemed completely different. Data from Wuhan suggested that the death rate was between three and four per cent. Our television screens were full of images of the health system in northern Italy being overwhelmed.
Given this particular set of information, it was perfectly understandable for the government to impose a lockdown. Behaviour was already changing rapidly in a spontaneous fashion as people voluntarily limited their social contact, but it would still have been very difficult at the time for the government not to take the action it did.
One of the most balanced set of commentaries throughout the whole crisis has been provided by Professor Carl Heneghan and his team at the Oxford University Centre for Evidence Based Medicine.
It was Heneghan, for example, who recently exposed the fact that Public Health England (PHE) did not let anyone recover from Covid-19 — at least not on paper. If you had recovered from the disease and were subsequently killed in a car crash, say, according to PHE data you died from the virus.
The Centre’s work shows that since the week of 14 June, total deaths in England and Wales have been running below their five-year average — despite an apparent upsurge in Covid cases.
Heneghan’s latest research even casts serious doubt on whether the true number of new cases has in fact risen.
On a technical point, the reported number of new cases follows a fairly shallow upward linear trend — not the exponential rise which would characterise a genuine second wave.
His key point, however, is that the number of tests has increased. Once this is taken into account, the rise in cases disappears completely. On the basis of personal knowledge, I can confirm that this seems to have happened in Rochdale in Greater Manchester. The Council installed walk-in test facilities in the town centre. Shortly afterwards, the number of reported new cases rose.
Covid-19 can be highly unpleasant and it retains the capacity to kill, so it is sensible to take precautions to avoid getting it. But the massive costs of lockdown — both economic and social — can no longer be justified.