Western countries’ knowledge about pandemic prevention remained stuck at the 1918 level: Austrian scholar
Published: May 15, 2022 05:40 PM
Editor's Note:

Austrian scholar Otto Kolbl (Kolbl) has received attacks from right-wing extremists and several Western media outlets after publishing, in March 2020, a paper calling European countries to learn from China in containing the coronavirus disease. While Kolbl was later appointed as a member of the expert committee of the German Interior Ministry and co-penned a strategic report on how to contain the COVID-19, his views were not taken seriously in the West. One year on and many Westerns countries have given up their efforts to contain the virus while the US marked a tragic pandemic milestone after the loss of 1 million lives to the COVID-19. Global Times reporter Xia Xue (GT) talked with Kolbl again after a March 2021 interview with him to understand how he perceived changes in pandemic prevention over the past year and the problems in the West. 

Medical staff assist a patient infected with COVID-19 in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Bochum, Germany, on December 16, 2021. Photo: VCG

Medical staff assist a patient infected with COVID-19 in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Bochum, Germany, on December 16, 2021. Photo: VCG

GT: What is your biggest impression of the epidemic response in China and in Europe over the past year?

Kolbl: What impressed me most is the way China managed the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. In the middle of the Omicron variant wave, a massive sporting event attracting teams from all over the world did not lead to any significant local transmissions. The infection rate was kept extremely low. This shows the way to the future of fighting future epidemics.

Of course, measures implemented at great cost for one single major event cannot directly and universally be applied to a whole country. However, using the valuable experience acquired from the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics can certainly be adapted through adequate research and development to help us learn how to contain respiratory illnesses in the future at a lower socioeconomic cost than what we had to do for COVID-19. 

China and many other Asian countries already had plans in place; in Western countries, the concept of "herd immunity" ruled supreme to the point where even research regarding the efficiency of face masks in the context of a global pandemic was simply not done.

GT: Have your views persuaded some influential experts, scholars, and government officials to recognize their erroneous views regarding the global pandemic and made some changes?

Kolbl: Within the Western academic community, the "academic consensus" rules supreme. Nowadays, the academic consensus is often determined by what influential members of the academic community consider to be "desirable"; research or opinions which go against the consensus will not be tolerated. 

This can be shown at the example of the general strategy adopted when facing a pandemic caused by a respiratory illness. Over the past decade, various documents by influential Western virologists and epidemiologists stated that even with a much more deadly virus than SARS-CoV-2 which causes the present pandemic, containment or eradication of the virus should not be attempted. Governments and society should let the virus spread through the population. This consensus basically prevented academic researchers from doing the necessary research about how a respiratory pandemic can be efficiently contained. 

The state of knowledge in Western countries about pandemic prevention remains stuck at the level of 1918, when the Spanish Flu epidemic forced authorities to improvise various measures. Actually, in 1918, the efficiency of face masks was commonly accepted, whereas in 2020, Western virologists initially advised against the use of face masks by the population and they were forced by pressure from public opinion to revise their position. 

Morning commuters pass the Bank of England in the City of London on January 27, 2022 Photo: VCG

Morning commuters pass the Bank of England in the City of London on January 27, 2022 Photo: VCG

Before the outbreak of the pandemic, an "academic consensus" favoring "herd immunity" determined the thinking and behavior of the academic community. It was so strong that virtually not one single researcher dared going against it and no relevant bodies were doing the necessary research to find out how a pandemic could be contained. When the epidemic hit, people who were neither virologists nor epidemiologists, all too often not even doctors, were often the first ones to sound the alarm and to push for the established experts to change their catastrophically wrong advice. 

When this double failure became apparent, the academic community did not even try to understand its causes. Instead, everybody in academia and the media agreed on trying to find a couple of scapegoats, in particular Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and China. Under these circumstances, a fact-based dialogue with individual members of the academic community is even more unlikely than before the epidemic. 

We must try by all means to understand the causes of these failures within the Western academic community, because they threaten not only the stability of Western societies, but also the stability of international relations and world peace. However, we cannot count on collaboration by the Western academic community. China must see to it that the necessary academic research is done and communicated in an efficient way to the population of the whole world. In this way, we can build up the necessary pressure on the West to reflect on its own failures, instead of blaming other countries for all its problems.

GT: Have you encountered a new round of smear campaigns and attacks from Western media outlets with regards to your views on China's epidemic prevention measures over the past year?

Kolbl: On May 9, the German daily newspaper Die Welt published another article in which they had tried to discredit me and China's dynamic zero-COVID policy. As a result, I was again spammed on Twitter by a massive wave of hate speech. All I tried to do in the interview with the journalist from this newspaper was to explain that in China, the result of letting the virus spread through society would have more serious consequences than, for example, in Western countries for a variety of reasons. 

I also mentioned the problem of long COVID, explaining that according to Western academic consensus, China would see at least 35 million people suffering from long COVID in the case of a strategy aiming at "herd immunity." These arguments were simply ignored by the journalist who wrote the article. The result was yet another among many other articles from this newspaper and other Western media outlets which present China's dynamic zero-COVID strategy as some kind of "authoritarian madness." The public health and socioeconomic cost of letting the virus spread through the whole society is simply ignored. This fits into a pattern into which China is increasingly lumped by Western academia, media, and even the population, as a threat or even as "evil." 

GT: Some Western countries blamed China for their ineffective epidemic prevention. What's your reaction to this?

Kolbl: Despite China's exemplary reaction to the epidemic, Western experts, media, and governments have been able to convince the huge majority of the Western population that China is to blame for the whole pandemic in one way or another. This communication is based mostly on fake news; however, in the absence of an efficient communication effort by China to counter Western disinformation, the West has, so far, been able to spread its lies unimpeded.

Various polls show that even in the absence of renewed massive anti-China media campaigns, public opinion toward China in Western countries has sharply deteriorated over the past year. Unfortunately, Chinese experts and leadership seem to be unaware of this fact and of the imminent threat arising from this situation.

The past year has shown that the US is likely to use all possible means to squeeze money out of other countries, even from poor war-ravaged countries like Afghanistan. They might try to force China to pay [for the epidemic] in a variety of ways. The socioeconomic situation in the US is deteriorating fast anyway; within such a context, lashing out against China will seem, to many people, to be the right thing to do.

A health worker waits for customers in a mobile COVID-19 test station in Munich on April 8. Photo: VCG

A health worker waits for customers in a mobile COVID-19 test station in Munich on April 8. Photo: VCG

China needs to engage in an efficient communication campaign to properly inform the world on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and about the reaction of Chinese experts and authorities in the first weeks of the epidemic. With a group of virologists and biologists, after many months of work, we got an academic paper published in the British Medical Journal Global Health about the available academic research regarding early transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in Europe. Much more research is needed, not only in Europe, but also in all other regions of the globe where the virus could have spread before it was identified in Wuhan at the end of December 2019. 

As explained above, Western academic researchers are all simply happy to blame China for their own failures.  They will not provide any support or funding for this kind of research. What is available by now has been made so by research teams using samples available to them, and often without funding. Their results get unjustly criticized by influential US and UK virologists. We need more research on bat-related coronaviruses and spillover events. An important amount of research had been done on these topics in China, which actually makes it easier to point fingers at China; no possible precursors will ever be found in countries where no research has been done. 

China must start to fund and support research in other countries, not only in the field of virology, but also regarding communication, public discourse, and the functionality of the academic community and the media; otherwise, China will be at the mercy of skilled disinformation campaigns orchestrated by Western experts, media, and governments trying to blame China for their own failures.

GT: What are the problems in Western countries' COVID-19 prevention efforts?

Kolbl: Very early on, information from China indicated that even though healthy younger people have got a very low risk of getting a severe case of COVID-19, they are also significantly at risk of getting long COVID, similar to elderly people or people with underlying risk factors. We tried to raise awareness around these dangers, in particular in our report about the COVID-19 task force to the German Interior Ministry in March 2020, but our warnings were ignored. 

Months later, under increasing pressure from long COVID patients, doctors, other health experts, the media, and governments were forced to recognize the problem of long COVID. Western media provided some coverage on this topic, but it has had no impact whatsoever on the official COVID policy. 

The problem in Western countries is that an important share of the population is not willing to compromise on the notion of absolute freedom to help contain a virus which, in their minds, only affects the elderly and other high risk groups.

When we discuss transition from a containment policy to a policy of "living with the virus," we should be more focused on the dangers of long COVID which can affect everybody, even healthy young people, at almost the same rate as other known high risk groups. This would probably make many people think again before they advocate for the lifting of measures like the wearing of face masks.

GT: The epidemic is entering its third year. Do you have any forecasts for the recovery of the global economy?

Kolbl: Experts have calculated the estimated direct impact of the COVID-19pandemic on the global economy to amount to tens of trillions of dollars. However, nobody has tried to evaluate the impact of various indirect factors. 

Probably the worst aspect of long COVID is that in Western countries, people with long COVID will go for long periods undiagnosed. The huge majority of those who were infected are not followed up on by any doctor. Because of the huge number of long COVID cases in Western countries, this will have long-term consequences for the economy and also for societal cohesion, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

We must add to this the impact of the war in Ukraine and, more generally, a trend in Western countries to "decouple" from the non-Western world, in particular from China. The increasing general hostility toward globalization will lead to a general decline in the efficiency of the global economy. These various factors mutually reinforce each other. 

I am quite pessimistic with regards to the future development of the Western-centered world economy. China is in a good position to take a leading role in the global economy. The increase in positive public opinion with regards to China in other developing countries shows that this shift is well under way. However, Western countries will remain extremely powerful and their increasing hostility toward China will continue to be a massive threat to global stability and prosperity. China must do more to engage in an efficient dialogue with the West, based not so much on "cultural differences" but on rigorous academic research which emphasizes the development of efficient solutions to common problems.