SAGE experts relied on Wikipedia to model impact of Covid crisis
The government’s scientific advisors had to rely on Wikipedia to gather data in the early days of the pandemic in what critics say was a sign of how unprepared Britain was for coronavirus.
It’s also been revealed that SAGE, the key advisory body managing the response to the outbreak, also contained no experts on human coronaviruses and wrongly predicted the peak of the virus by two months.
A new BBC documentary will tonight lift the lid on the scientific response to the unprecedented virus crisis in the run-up to the first nationwide lockdown in March.
It reveals data about the number of cases in the UK and abroad was so patchy in the beginning that early models produced by SAGE used the online encyclopedia, which can be edited by anyone.
Professor Ian Hall, who is the deputy chair of the SAGE subgroup SPI-M, says in the film: ‘The public may be surprised that we were using Wikipedia to get data very early on in the pandemic, but that was really the only data that was publicly available that we could access.’
Data from SAGE about the spread of the virus was used to justify the first lockdown in March. Imperial scientists led by Professor Neil Ferguson infamously predicted 500,000 deaths from the virus during the first wave.
Professor Ferguson sat on SAGE until he was forced to resign in May after breaking lockdown to meet with his lover. It’s unclear from the documentary if Wikipedia data was used in his study.
An Oxford University scientist told MailOnline using Wikipedia for data was ‘absolutely unacceptable’ and a ‘damning reflection of our lack of preparedness’.
‘Lockdown 1.0 – Following the Science?’, which airs on BBC Two tonight at 9pm, will likely fuel some critics claims that the Government was poorly advised and over-reacted in introducing the highly damaging lockdown.
Ministers have repeatedly stressed they were ‘following the science’ when making interventions aimed at stopping the spread of the disease.
The film also reveals SAGE suffered from a lack of coronavirus-specific expertise in its ranks.
Liverpool University Professor Calum Semple, a member of another SAGE sub-committee called NERVTAG, said: ‘Quite a few of us had read the literature for SARS and MERS but there was no particular specialist who has just focused their entire life on human coronaviruses.’
One of the few people who was studying human coronaviruses at the time, Professor David Matthews of the University of Bristol, said he was never contacted by the government.
He told the BBC he was waiting for a phone call when the virus started to emerge in China, given his department was the only one specialising in the area at the time, but it never came.
‘You have to remember there are not many corona virologists in the UK at all’, Professor Matthews said.
‘I half expected someone in the government to say, “Is there anybody who’s got a containment facility and working on dangerous human coronaviruses right now?” And that didn’t happen.’
The lack of data and expertise may have contributed to other errors made by SAGE in the beginning. The film says the group initially predicted the peak of the virus would come in June but in fact it came two months earlier in April.
They also failed to consider that agency workers would likely spread Covid through care homes because they travel from one to the next. This likely exacerbated the spread of the virus through the sector where around 25,000 people died during the first wave.
The quality of the data appears to have been the major issue scientists faced as the outbreak started taking hold.
One expert, Dr Thibaut Jombart, from Imperial College London, said the data in Britain in March was so patchy it was worse than he had seen while working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Ebola outbreak.
Reacting to the documentary, Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, told MailOnline: ‘The fact they used Wikipedia for their models is just completely unacceptable. You’ve got to use verified data.
‘I cannot imagine a scenario where any scientist should be turning to Wikipedia – the thing about models is it’s extremely important the evidence they’re based on is as robust as it can be.
‘It reflects our lack of preparedness, there were outbreak happening in Europe that could’ve been used to inform. If they [SAGE] didn’t understand the data or couldn’t access it they should’ve been in touch with public health officials abroad to understand them.’