Sunday 23 May 2021

There's one born every minute - the Ivor Cummins story

Update: Cummins has, quite sensibly, deleted most of his tweets about Covid so some of the tweets I embedded in this post no longer work. Where possible, I have replaced the tweet with a screenshot. Otherwise I have reproduced the text (which is saved in the embedded tweet even after being deleted).
In the 1980s there was a TV evangelist in the USA named Peter Popoff who was exposed on national television by the late, great James Randi. It turned out that he was wearing an earpiece during his church services so his wife could feed him 'divine' information about people in the congregation. You may have seen it. It is possibly the most famous debunking in television history.


The thing I find most fascinating about this story is that Popoff is still in business. Despite being caught bang to rights on video tape, Peter Popoff Ministries is today producing 'Miracle Spring Water' and broadcasting on several TV networks (including Faith TV in Britain).  

All you have to do is Google the guy's name to find out what he's been up to in the past and yet he still finds a willing and paying audience.

In January, I mentioned a man called Ivor Cummins in an article about 'coronavirus cranks'. At the time, I thought the jig was up for him and his fellow Covid entrepreneurs. I even made a Downfall video about it. But he's still going. After a brief drop in Patreon subscribers and Twitter followers, he now has more of both than he did before. He's raised another £5,000 for his long-delayed feature film. 

This is a guy who could not have been more wrong over the course of the pandemic. He might just be the wrongest man who ever lived. And yet there is still a paying audience for what he does. With 1,742 subscribers paying a minimum of £3 a month (+VAT), he's making at least £75,000 a year from that revenue stream alone.

His business model relies on people having a very short memory, so let's look back on his record.

In the early stages of the pandemic, Cummins did not take a particularly contrarian line. He made a few comments about the supposed importance of nutrition (his day job involved promoting the low carb diet and he was involved with the Irish Heart Foundation although I understand they have since parted ways). Although he would later describe mask mandates as "the most anti-scientific thing I've seen in my lifetime", he was firmly in favour of face masks in March 2020.

During the first lockdown, Cummins developed his own theory about COVID-19. It has undergone several modifications over time, but the basic premise is that the virus is like flu, seasonal and not particularly dangerous. Most people are immune to it because they've had a respiratory virus in the past and the first wave would have subsided with or without lockdowns. Indeed, he believes the first wave was the only real epidemic because "de facto herd immunity" was quickly achieved. This meant that there could be no second wave. There might be a "winter resurgence", but this would be mild and would be little different to what we see in an average flu season. 

In the tweet below he combines his (false) belief that COVID-19 has a low infection fatality rate with his equally false belief about 'de facto herd immunity'.

This was a common refrain of his last summer. He repeated it again and again and it was the basis of his breakthrough video in September which got over a million views and has since been removed by YouTube (you can watch a version of it here). In that video, he explained...
So around 80% are already de facto immune through cross-immunity, T-cells, prior coronaviruses. Around 1 in 5 people will be less immune, they're the ones it has to go through... Then the virus stumbles over immune people."

Since only 20 per cent of the population needed to get COVID-19 for everybody to be immune, Cummins reckoned that any country that had a significant first wave had achieved herd immunity.

Although Ireland had a smaller first wave than the UK, Cummins (who is Irish) claimed that it too had reached herd immunity.

Ergo, there could be no second wave.

'Wave' is a word that doesn't really have a scientific definition, but with COVID-19, you know one when you see it. Since Cummins thought that herd immunity had been achieved, he thought there could be no second wave unless there was a second virus. He thinks this is what happened with the Spanish Flu although, to my knowledge, it didn't. Either way, he repeated this claim ad nauseam.

As case numbers began to tick up again in the summer of 2020, Cummins endorsed the idea that it was an artifact of mass testing, false positives and asymptomatic cases. He maintained that the pandemic was over in the UK and most of Europe and declared a 'casedemic'. 

This, again, was expanded upon in his now-deleted video of 8 September. The conclusion was that lockdowns are pointless and governments should instead encourage the "safe spread" of the virus in the summer to prevent a winter peak. 
There were some elements to his theory that could have been true. It was possible that some people would have some sort of natural immunity and it was certainly likely that warmer weather would reduce the infection rate, if only because people spend more time outdoors. It was an observable fact that rates of infection in Sweden had fallen in the spring of 2020 without the government resorting to lockdown.

Scientists didn't know enough about the virus when it first emerged. We know much more now. Most countries have had a second or third wave and they have often been bigger than the first. We have seen major outbreaks in winter, spring, summer and autumn in various countries. It is clearly not true that 80 per cent of the population acquired natural immunity without being infected or vaccinated.

Most of his ideas didn't stack up even at the time. If herd immunity had been achieved by June, as he claimed, how could there be any resurgence and how could the government get the virus to spread in summer, particularly if it was seasonal? And how do you achieve the "safe spread" of a virus which, contrary to Cummins' claims, has an infection fatality rate of around one per cent in rich countries?

Cummins dressed up his ideas with some terminology from science (such as the Gompertz Curve) along with sciency-sounding terms that he either misunderstands or made up himself (such as 'viral triggering', 'detriggering' and 'double-hump'). None of this has any explanatory value, but it helps him get around the inconvenient fact that countries keep having new waves of infections. 

He now seems to think the virus lies dormant in people before erupting. Viral triggering is a real thing with diseases like herpes, but there is no evidence to suggest that SARS-CoV-2 acts like this and every reason to think it doesn't. If rates unexpectedly rise, Cummins claims that the virus has been 'triggered'. But by what? Initially, it was the seasons (although this is not really an explanation in itself). More recently, he has admitted that he doesn't really know, but it must be something.

The obvious thing the virus needs to be triggered is human interaction, preferably in unventilated indoor spaces, but this is the one explanation that Cummins rejects because it implies that lockdowns must work. 
Why would the virus be triggered in March 2020 but de-triggered in March 2021? Why were cases going up in September and why did they then fall? None of the waves resemble the normal bell curves of seasonal flu. A better and more obvious explanation is that a six week lockdown began in October with tight restrictions until Christmas when rules were relaxed. This led to a sharp rise in infections and another lockdown which sharply reduced case numbers again.

But this was all in the future in September when he began making concrete predictions.

When challenged, he made it clear what he would accept as evidence that he was wrong.

In October he provided another testable proposition.

He also made a video titled 'The Tiger Horn Deceit' which accused the public of mistaking correlation for causation when they saw case rates fall during lockdowns. It was just a coincidence, he said, but governments would whip up fear again and introduce lockdowns in response to a mythical threat in order to convince people that lockdowns work. (I know it doesn't make a lot of sense.) 

In it, he said...

"But then the question, recently, the cases are through the roof, but the deaths are still really low, and it looks like the winter is not going to be much different than a normal winter [...] so you gotta shut all this down, big time, and then the deceit, you have to double down on your lockdown, so when the winter ends up being pretty normal you can end up saying the lockdown made it so."


You know what happened next. By the end of December, the UK had 8 people per million dying of COVID-19 each day, four times what Cummins predicted. This rose in January to a peak of 18 per million, nine times higher. Between 1 November 2020 and 28 February 2021, 76,000 people died "with positive PCR for SARS-CoV-2", significantly more than had died in the first wave.

There were far more excess deaths than in the winter of 2015 and 2018 (both of which had quite bad flu seasons). 

The same was true in Europe as a whole.
This really should have been game over for Cummins and his notions, but he rode it out. Initially, he stuck to the casedemic theory and claimed that there was no excess mortality.

The graph comes from Euromomo, a website which was useful to Cummins at the time because it not only has a big time lag in its reporting (shown in yellow), but it invariably under-reports the figures while it is waiting for the data. It also has such a narrow band that even huge increases in mortality look relatively modest (the red line indicates a 'substantial increase'). In any case, the graph now looks like this...

As cases and deaths mounted in December, he continued to claim that the second wave was nothing more than a "muted" winter resurgence.

 On January 4th, Cummins released a video (now deleted) in which he admitted that hospitals in the UK were "filling up here and there" while claiming that mortality was "way, way lower" than in the first wave because of "community immunity".

On January 6th, with the UK back in lockdown and with Covid deaths close to a thousand per day, he put out a video claiming that what was happening was "exactly what we predicted" and that "excess mortality is as per prior years". He claimed that anyone who said otherwise was "lying". In fact, there were thousands of excess deaths that week in England and Wales. In England alone, there would be 15,685 excess deaths in January, 30 per cent more than normal.

In a now-deleted video, he takes Public Health England's weekly surveillance report (wrongly attributed to the ONS) and claims that there is no excess mortality. Like Euromomo, this report suffers from a reporting lag which was made worse by under-reporting of deaths over the Christmas period (bank holidays have a big impact on death registrations). In his video, it looked like this...

By the end of the second wave, it looked like this...

He started ignoring this series of reports once they had outlived their usefulness.

Two days later, Cummins doubled down on his wager that excess mortality in the winter of 2020/21 wouldn't beat prior 'tough' seasons such as 2018.

As shown above, he was very much not correct. 

At around the same time, he suddenly backtracked on his claims about the second wave, insisting that he had "foretold" a second wave all along.

At this point he shifted his rhetoric, claiming that the people who had predicted a "Spanish Flu second wave" would be proved wrong. I am not aware of anyone predicting such a thing. I'm not even sure what it means.

As late as mid-January, when over 1,200 people were dying every day in the UK from COVID-19, he was still insisting that there was no second wave.

Daily deaths peaked on 19 January and then began to gradually drop away. Deaths peaked in Ireland a little earlier and fell sharply for the rest of the month. Having exploited the time lag in excess mortality reporting when the second waves were reaching their peak, he thereafter pointed to falling rates as evidence that the 'seasonal resurgence' had passed and there was nothing to worry about. 

Eventually, he even brought back the casedemic rhetoric as if nothing had happened.
A glutton for punishment, he began making new claims about the pandemic which put him at high risk of looking foolish again.
Far from emptying out, Sweden's intensive care wards were reaching maximum capacity in many parts of the country. The chart below shows daily admissions to ICU with COVID-19. This, in a country that Cummins said had reached herd immunity the previous June.
Another country where people were 'bristling with antibodies', according to Cummins, was India.

You know what happened next. India became the global epicentre of the pandemic. Officially, there are more than 4,000 Covid deaths a day, but testing capacity is limited and experts believe the real figure could be ten times higher.

Then there was Croatia which had not locked down in 2021 and seemed to be doing OK.

 Alas, the infection rate in Croatia had been rising for three weeks when he tweeted this. Inevitably, deaths followed.


As this graph shows, rates in Europe overall have been up and down, reflecting the fact that different countries have had outbreaks at different times. Note how different Europe’s curve is to that of the UK and Ireland’s - and Croatia’s for that matter. There is no pattern to suggest a seasonal outbreak. It isn’t a normal epidemic curve at all because the main thing controlling it is national lockdowns at different times by national governments.

Nevertheless, Cummins declared VE Day on 26 March...

You only need to look at the graphs he is posting here to see that 2020/21 was nothing like "every winter season in history". Rates hadn't collapsed resoundingly and Europe certainly wasn’t  displaying any “natural classic Gompertz curves”. Indeed, infection rates were rising in many European countries as they entered spring.

I could go on, but it would be exhausting. This has been a long post because Cummins is wrong about a great deal. To return to my original point, it does seem - as Abe Lincoln said - that you can fool some of the people all of the time. Cummins doesn't delete his tweets and he tweets a lot. It's all out there for anyone who wants to check his track record. And yet he inspires such trust and devotion among certain people that they will give him money. 

Truly, there is one born every minute.

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