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The Ioannidis Factor in Trump's COVID-19 Anti-Lockdown Stance

The National Herald Archive

Dr. Ioannis PA Ioannidis making a presentation in Germany. (Photo by BIH / Stefan Zeitz)

To his supporters, Stanford Professor John Ioannidis correctly called the COVID-19 pandemic statistically but to his detractors he has misled the public and professionals into thinking the danger is less than believed.

Now, said the news website Buzzfeed, he may have been a big influence on President Donald Trump's downplaying of the risk of infections, holding back tests and resisting lockdowns in a bid to restore his vanishing popularity in polls.

The story was detailed in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini which said the news site had obtained emails sent by Ioannidis to several scientific collaborators, including one, sent on March 28, where he said: "I think our ideas have inflitrated (sic) the White House regardless," a reference to a meeting he requested that didn't happen.

The 54-year-old Ioannidis, Professor in Disease Prevention at Stanford School of Medicine, Professor of Medicine, of Health Research and Policy (Epidemiology) and, by Courtesy, of Statistics and of Biomedical Data Science, became known worldwide 15 years ago for his meta-research (research on research) paper, titled Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.

It established his reputation as a contrarian in the scientific world but to his critics cemented his place with them as not knowing what he was talking about, worsened now they said, by his insistence earlier the Coronavirus was no worse than the flu.

Like Trump and other politicians who didn't want lockdowns – only to see that explode in their faces when cases and deaths rose as they desperately tried to spin why that wasn't really so – Ioannidis wants businesses open and said shutdowns are the danger.

He has some backers at high levels. Scientists at Oxford University clashed with colleagues at London's Imperial College, who were strongly in favor of a lockdown but with COVID-19 getting worse in the United States, his calls appear off the mark.

Ioannidis' ideas were called "scientifically untenable at that time, and untenable from the perspective of decision-making especially,” Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health epidemiologist, told BuzzFeed News, views agreed to by many epidemiologists who think Ioannidis is just flat-out wrong and misguided.

In March, as the virus was beginning to spread rapidly, he said that the case of the cruise ship Diamond Princess where it was out of control really showed that the risk of death, as a percentage of carriers was very small, unless you were one of the victims.

He invited seven other scientists from Stanford, the Universities of California at Berkeley and San Diego and Yale to try to meet with Trump, but two of them told Buzzfeed they didn't agree with his anti-lockdown stance but all agreed on the need for more testing.

While the meeting didn't happen, there was speculation that Trump – who retweeted wild conspiracy theories, including from a doctor who said medicines are being made with DNA from aliens to create a vaccine to keep people from being religious – knew of Ioannidis' opposition to lockdowns after the professor appeared on Fox News.

This may be the reason that, although Trump decided to impose a lockdown on March 23, he immediately added that the country must reopen by Easter, the paper's report said, adding to the theory of Ioannidis was being listened to inside the White House.

Ioannidis came under fire after it was found his study was partially funded by the billionaire founder of Jet Blue, David Neelman (a Cypriot citizen) whose airline would suffer if grounded, as it was.

Since then, Ioannidis admitted he made certain methodological errors which he said he corrected, claiming the mistakes didn't affect the accuracy without explaining why.

His critics said if he did influence Trump, it was costly and deadly because the President presents nothing but rosy estimates as the death and case tolls mount by the minute across the country in grim numbers.

In March, Ioannidis said COVID-19's death toll wouldn't surpass 10,000 in the United States. By Aug. 5 there were 4,191,825 cases and 161,215 deaths, more than 16 times what he wrongly predicted, and rising fast. He didn't offer any more explanations.