President Trump, who at one point called the coronavirus pandemic an “invisible enemy” and said it made him a “wartime President,” has in recent days questioned its seriousness, tweeting, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.” Trump has said repeatedly that he wants the country to reopen by Easter, April 12th, contradicting the advice of most health officials. According to the Washington Post, “Conservatives close to Trump and numerous administration officials have been circulating an article by Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution, titled ‘Coronavirus Perspective,’ that plays down the extent of the spread and the threat.”
Epstein, a professor at New York University School of Law, published the article on the Web site of the Hoover Institution, on March 16th. In it, he questioned the World Health Organization’s decision to declare the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, said that “public officials have gone overboard,” and suggested that about five hundred people would die from COVID-19 in the U.S. Epstein later updated his estimate to five thousand, saying that the previous number had been an error. So far, there have been more than two thousand coronavirus-related fatalities in America; epidemiologists’ projections of the total deaths range widely, depending on the success of social distancing and the availability of medical resources, but they tend to be much higher than Epstein’s. (On Sunday, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated that there could be between a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand deaths in the U.S.) In a follow-up article, published on March 23rd and titled “Coronavirus Overreaction,” Epstein wrote, “Progressives think they can run everyone’s lives through central planning, but the state of the economy suggests otherwise. Looking at the costs, the public commands have led to a crash in the stock market, and may only save a small fraction of the lives that are at risk.”
Epstein has long been one of the most cited legal scholars in the country, and is known for his libertarian-minded reading of the Constitution, which envisions a restrained federal government that respects private property. He has also been known to engage with controversial subjects; last fall, he published an article on the Hoover Institution Web site that argued, “The professional skeptics are right: there is today no compelling evidence of an impending climate emergency.” Last Wednesday, I spoke by phone with Epstein about his views of the coronavirus pandemic. He was initially wary of talking, and asked to record his own version of the call, which I agreed to. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Epstein made a number of comments about viruses that have been strongly disputed by medical professionals. We have included factual corrections alongside those statements.
What did you want to achieve with your pieces?
What did I want to achieve with my pieces? First of all, I am not a politician. What I did is that I looked at the standard model that was put out in the New York Times [in an Op-Ed by Nicholas Kristof and Stuart A. Thompson, published on March 13th], which was backed up by other models in other places, and it occurred to me that I just did not think that the underlying assumptions there were sound. The single most important thing to me was not to get my own estimate of what the number is. The most important thing was to look at that curve, which seemed to suggest that there would be ten million cases a day during a ten-day or so band in the middle of July, and to explain why, in relationship to all other things I know about evolutionary theory, that this just has to be wrong. The better way to have phrased the paper would have been to say that the traditional models, which were used for the last flu season, for the 2009 H1N1 situation, are much better approximations of what is likely to happen than these rather scary kinds of projections.
You wrote last week, “In the United States, if the total death toll increases at about the same rate, the current 67 deaths should translate into about 500 deaths at the end.” We are currently at eight hundred deaths—over eight hundred deaths. [This was true when we spoke; the number is now over two thousand.]
First of all, let me just say I wrote an amendment to that, the thing I regret most in that whole paper. But I was not so much interested in explaining why my number was right. I was interested in explaining why the other projections were wrong.
O.K., but your number was surpassed in about a week, and now we’re already—
I understand that, but the point about that is that, first of all, there was a simple stupid error, which is you would never want to put it in a model that total deaths in the United States relative to the world would be one per cent. So if you just inflated it to five per cent or ten per cent, then all of a sudden you’ve got a number which is either five or ten times as high.
Secondly, suppose I should have been wiser in this and said, as I referred to the flu vaccine and later on to the H1N1 situation, if those are your benchmarks, then the number goes up to say between fifteen thousand and forty thousand deaths, as opposed to the one million-plus that are projected. [The Times model projected, without interventions by governments or citizens, a million deaths in the U.S.; with such interventions, the model showed that number dramatically decreasing.] And, remember, the one million-plus is on a model which is universal and worldwide, and you should expect to see something like that somewhere else. And there’s no evidence whatsoever that any of the situations, even in Italy, is going to approach the kinds of numbers that you had there. And so I am truly sorry about that [five hundred] number. I regard it as the single worst public-relations gaffe I’ve made in my entire life. But the question to ask, Isaac, is not whether I chose the right number but whether I had the right model.
Something else you wrote, in an earlier piece, was, “Why has there been such a dramatic mismatch in the responses to ordinary flu and the coronavirus?” Is that a question you’re still unsure about?
Look, the basic problem is, I think, in effect, that the tendency on the part of many people to treat this particular thing as unique is a mistake. There’s an underlying, standard model that you want to use, and the question is how you stuff it full of parameters. That is, numbers you add into it to make what’s going on. And, so, the situation that you get is you cannot use any exponential system because essentially then everybody is going to be dead, because things just keep doubling, doubling, and doubling.
So you have to develop a model which is going to explain why there’s a fairly rapid increase at the outset, and then why the thing starts to turn flat, ultimately down, and then disappears. That’s the strategy that you have to do. And so the theory here is one that I actually worked with and I thought worked pretty well in the AIDS stuff, which I worked on back in the early nineteen-eighties. And the model goes something like this. You start off with this virus, and there’s a range, some of which are very serious and some of which are less, so it’s a theory of natural selection with a normal distribution set. And, if you’re moving into a new environment like the [Life Care Center] of Kirkland or like the cruise ship, what happens is you have people who are completely unaware of what is going on. And so you take a population like in Kirkland, which is fragile and old, you get somebody in who has a strong version of the virus, and the thing will just absolutely rip through the population and kill everybody in it within a very short period of time. [Daniel Kuritzkes, the chief of the infectious-diseases division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, said, after being read this passage, “There’s no evidence that there are strong and weak variations of the coronavirus circulating. There may be minor variations person to person or location to location in the actual genetic sequence, but there is no evidence that they have different virulence or that a less virulent version is overtaking a more virulent version.”]