As far as Maltese doctors go, GP and researcher Jean Karl Soler is a rarity in his skepticism of the health authorities’ strategy to contain COVID-19 and he has earned himself a strong following as a result.
Hailed as a hero by some and dismissed as a promoter of misinformation* by others, Soler recently discussed his views on the pandemic in a two-hour podcast with Ragnar Ciantar.
This is what the controversial doctor is actually saying.
First of all, Soler insists that COVID-19 actually has a mortality rate of 0.15%, which is significantly lower than the global rate of 2% that emerges by calculating global figures.
He sets a lot of store by research conducted by John Ioannidis, a Greek-American scientist at Stanford University, who came up with the 0.15% estimate by looking at data on people who have developed antibodies to the virus.
“COVID-19 may be twice as lethal as common seasonal flu, and in those younger than 70, the mortality rates may be similar,” a slide presented by Soler reads.
Ioannidis is a popular scientist in his own right, with a 2010 profile in The Atlantic describing him as potentially “one of the most influential scientists alive”.
However, his research into COVID-19 has been widely criticised in scientific circles for using a skewed survey method – Ioannidis and his team recruited 3,330 volunteers through a Facebook ad.
John Ioannidis’ behavior here is disgraceful. And his analysis is both deadly and absurd as he then goes on to claim covid has an infection fatality rate of 0.15%, even as covid has killed a larger share of the US *population*. https://t.co/SEHS8LR1zh
— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) March 29, 2021
For example, economics professor Justin Wolfers has derided his research as “disgraceful”, while genetics professor Alexander suggested Ioannidis may be “so attached to being the iconoclast that defies conventional wisdom that he’s unintentionally doing horrible science.”
However, Soler uses Ioannidis’ study to suggest that children might not need to get vaccinated.
“Obviously elderly people should get vaccinated but for children it’s another story because the benefits are much less and then you start thinking of the side effects – they are rare but you can’t forget about them. In fact some European countries aren’t recommending that minors should get vaccinated except those who are vulnerable.”
Soler also cited Ioannidis and other researchers when warning about the danger of lockdowns.
“Malta’s poverty rate was on the decline in recent years but we have now changed the trend due to the restrictions,” he said. “Airline companies failed, cruise liners might fail, people are scared to go out and meet others and have fun, children are scared to meet other children, people are scared to go back to work, people suffered heart attacks and didn’t go to hospital. Did we need to reach this stage?”
“Some countries locked their people indoors with armed soldiers patrolling the streets and the WHO praised them for it,” he added sarcastically.
Just like many COVID-19 restriction skeptics, he said the world should have followed Sweden, which refused to go into a lockdown.
“As it stands, we’re acting as though we want to bring the numbers down to zero, but this virus will never disappear.”
Restrictions introduced due to the pandemic dealt a major blow to the global economy, and even countries like Sweden which didn’t go into lockdown were badly hit.
The GP also argues that Malta’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases isn’t cause for concern and could actually be due to an extremely high cycle count in the PCR tests conducted by the health authorities.
He cited advice on cycle counts issued by the WHO a few months ago, which many interpreted as an admission by the global health body that the tests were producing several false positives.
However, the WHO insisted that its advice was taken out of context.
As for fears of the Delta variant or potential future variants, Soler cited an article which Yale public health professor Nathan Grubaugh wrote at the start of the pandemic which plays down fears of viruses developing into deadlier variants.
Soler has also warned that masks are essentially useless outdoors, citing a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health which warned mask-wearing may even have adverse effects.
“You should wear a mask when you’re working with sick people at hospital, but if you want to go and see the ducks at San Anton Gardens, there’s no evidence that you need to wear a mask.”
When questioned about conspiracy theories that COVID-19 was part of a sinister global deal to develop a bioweapon, Soler laughed off these suggested and compared it to the infamous flat-earth theory.
However, he made it a point to note that studies are underway to ascertain whether the virus might have originated from a lab in Wuhan.
Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci has now reported Soler to the Medical Council, a body which has the power to recommend the suspension or revocation of medical licenses.
Understandably, this has won Soler even more support, with the GP warning it goes against freedom of speech and freedom to discuss science and many people condemning Gauci for trying to shut him up.
So has Soler got it right, partially right or completely wrong?
The honest truth is that even if he’s dead wrong, Gauci’s decision to report him was always likely to backfire.
After all, science is a constantly evolving process and should be debated publicly, just like the US professors called out Ioannidis’ research methods.
Gauci and other medical experts who disagree with Soler’s interpretation of the pandemic should engage with him, perhaps even in a televised debate, and prove him to be wrong.
Right now, the GP is fast building a name for himself among people disillusioned by the pandemic and angry at the restrictions. Like it nor not, Gauci’s move is only going to make him more popular.
Following the publication of this article, Soler sent the following right of reply
“In this post on Lovin’ Malta, the reporter challenges some of my points.”
“First, he states that research by Ioannidis is in some way controversial, and posts some online comments criticising Prof. Ioannidis’ research. I can only say that Ioannidis is a world-renowned, highly respected researcher, and his publication on the Infection Fatality Rate of COVID-19 is still today carried on the WHO website. In any case, my quoting of his research is accurate. So, can anyone call me a ‘quack’?”
“Let us not forget that the original estimate of the fatality rate of COVID-19 was 4%. The case fatality rates in various countries have dipped below 1%, without counting asymptomatic cases and not correcting for the known inaccuracies of ascribing death to COVID-19 in elderly people with multiple diseases.”
“As such, the rates based on dividing COVID-ascribed deaths by numbers of PCR-confirmed “cases” are questionable, and not the IFR paper by Ioannidis. The paper I quote is strangely described as based on a Facebook advert (?), but instead is a survey of the medical literature, and, to be frank, I do not know who is feeding information to the Lovin’ Malta journalists.”
“Second, he makes a big deal of my criticising the positive predictive value of the PCR test above 24-25 cycles. I stand by my argument, which is not based simply on a post on the WHO website (which does recommend against blanket testing of asymptomatic individuals).”
“I have shared links to a study testing the PCR test against a gold standard, cultivating virus from the same sample. This study found that the PCR test was only predictive of infection (confirmed by growing virus) if the test was performed less than 8 days after symptoms appeared, and only up to about 24-25 cycles. High cycle positives (which mean that there was very little viral RNA in the sample) were poorly predictive of live virus culture.”
“If that is all they can criticise from the information in a video interview over 1 hour 30 minutes long, then I think I did pretty well. And there is not one fact I have stated which is not supported by published, peer-reviewed medical literature.”
“Finally, my recommendation against vaccinating healthy children was not only based on a risk/benefit analysis using Ioannidis’ paper. I also did the same using quoted infection fatality rates from the CDC website. So there.”
“Additionally, the WHO is itself recommending vaccination of children in the 12-15 age group who are at increased risk, and stops short of recommending vaccination of all children, pending further evidence. As such, my position is consistent with that position, as well as the advice from the German, Swedish, and other national vaccine advisory groups.”
“So, then, I think I have a pretty solid foundation for my arguments. Don’t you?”
*An earlier version of the article carried a different description of what Dr Soler’s critics view him as