First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
At a time when reliable information on the Covid-19 pandemic, treatment and vaccines is considered so vital that many countries – including South Africa – have criminalised misinformation, a group of influential South African lobbyists has been amplifying discredited and unscientific views and voices.
A South African private sector research group that has repeatedly lobbied against lockdown denies being associated with a global coalition of pandemic denialists and sceptics – but online evidence suggests otherwise. Pandemics Data and Analytics (Panda) is one of the loudest anti-lockdown groups globally, and openly states online that it hopes to “lead the world against lockdown”.
Panda is founded and run by Nick Hudson, CEO of the South African private equity fund Sana Partners, and co-founded by Peter Castleden, a senior executive at another South African financial services giant, Sanlam – the largest insurance company in Africa. Sanlam’s subsidiary Santam has been criticised for refusing to pay out policy-holders from the hospitality industry on the basis that losses are the result of the government-imposed lockdown, not the Covid-19 pandemic.
In early February, British news outlet Byline Times reported that Panda seemingly had links to a number of platforms in the UK that have promoted Covid-19 disinformation. One is a UK-based group called the Covid-19 Assembly, which describes itself on its website as a “centre-point for all anti-lockdown groups worldwide”, and states that it is working with Panda.
In response to questions from DM168, Panda denied having links with the Covid-19 Assembly, calling the claims “baseless”.
But, on the Covid-19 Assembly website, it states: “We are working with organisations such as Pandata19.org to help distribute accurate information”. The domain name Pandata19.org takes one to the Panda website.
When confronted with this, Panda – via Hudson – said: “It is not clear to us what that statement [on the Covid-19 Assembly website] means … We do not, in principle, have an issue with working with other organisations, but Panda is not in fact working with Covid-19 Assembly and we will take this up with them.”
Following the publication of the Byline Times article, the Covid-19 Assembly website was briefly taken offline. When the website reappeared, certain changes had been made as a result of the Byline Times exposé, but archived web pages reveal that among the advisers to the Covid-19 Assembly are Patrick Fagan, former lead psychologist at Cambridge Analytica, the controversial data-firm exposed for using fake news and disinformation to support the Donald Trump presidential campaign in the US and the Brexit campaign in the UK.
Another disinformation outfit seemingly linked to Panda is the UK-based PCRclaims.co.uk, a project claiming to offer legal support for financial claims resulting from PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing: the primary test being used globally to detect the coronavirus.
Panda again denied having any links to PCRclaims.co.uk, but Panda’s website is listed on the PCRclaims.co.uk’s list of “Useful Websites”.
In response to this, Panda stated: “We trust that DM168 is not suggesting that the listing of [a] website as a useful link implies co-ordination between the lister and the listee.”
A web page suggesting a more direct affiliation was taken offline immediately after the Byline Times article was published, but an archived version listing PCRclaims’ spokespeople names Hudson as a spokesperson on economic matters.
“Individual members of Panda are entitled to provide advice to other organisations in their personal capacities and this does not, outside of the realm of conspiracy theories, imply co-ordination between the organisations,” Panda told DM168.
“Mr Hudson has advised Panda that he has had no contact with PCRclaims for months.”
As an illustration of the kind of disinformation PCRclaims.co.uk promotes, the first item on its page of recommended resources is a link to a video on BitChute.com.
The Anti-Defamation League describes BitChute.com as “a hotbed for violent, conspiratorial and hate-filled video propaganda, and a recruiting ground for extremists”. This includes material “calling for the extermination of Jews, glorifying violent beatings by police and anti-government militias, vilifying Black people and demonizing immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community and Muslims”.
Panda’s chief argument is that lockdowns cause more death and destruction than the Covid-19 pandemic itself. As such, it has repeatedly lobbied the South African government to loosen restrictions.
But Panda’s core research findings have received withering criticism from independent experts who describe the group’s claims as little more than pseudoscientific disinformation.
In May 2020, for instance, Panda published its seminal report outlining the findings of its actuarial model, which claimed that the impact of lockdown would cause 30 times more deaths than the Covid-19 pandemic itself.
The report – sent to President Cyril Ramaphosa – received significant media coverage and no critical scrutiny. Since then Panda’s pandemic commentary, playing down the scale of the pandemic while casting doubt on the efficacy of PCR tests, has been regularly picked up by major media.
Two top British experts have now told DM168 that Panda’s actuarial model is deeply flawed. “This paper is unfortunately a complete sham masquerading as science – it would never pass peer review in any reputable journal,” said Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and statistical geneticist at Queen Mary University in London.
“It seems completely out of touch with reality and real-world evidence from across the globe … The estimated fatalities in South Africa from the model are clearly biased downwards – as the total mortality predicted by the model has already come to pass, and been exceeded in South Africa. The toll would have been much higher had the epidemic been allowed to continue unmitigated – we don’t need to imagine this, given this has already happened in some parts of the world.”
Gurdasani, who is published actively in the scientific literature on Covid-19, explained that “most of the assumptions in model” are “unjustified, and not based in real-world evidence or data.” The model ignores the impact of ‘long Covid’ on young people and children, which has been found to occur in between 10%-20% of all infected individuals, including 12%-14% of children.
“It does not consider the impact of this on the economy. Neither does it sufficiently examine the impact of health systems being overwhelmed without lockdowns and the impact of lack of healthcare on the population as a whole.”
She pointed out that the paper’s projection of a 10% increase in excess mortality for 10 years due to lockdown is devoid of “real-world data” that ignores the experience of other countries. The 20% increase in excess deaths in the UK since March 2020, for instance, is almost entirely accounted for by deaths from Covid-19 despite three UK lockdowns.
“While there may have been indirect impact of lockdowns on health, this seems to have been more than offset by fewer deaths from other causes, for example, flu, accidents and so on,” Gurdasani said.
Querying various technical assumptions used in the paper (its extrapolation from fatality rates in New York ignoring more robust datasets from elsewhere; presuming for no reason that “excess mortality loading weights per co-morbidity are 7 times higher for the elderly compared to the young”), she concluded that “the model has wildly overestimated indirect deaths from non-Covid-19 occurring during lockdowns. In fact, the real observational data from South Africa shows the huge impact Covid-19 can have and has had directly on mortality if allowed to spread, and the impact lockdowns have in containing these excess deaths.”
Panda’s Hudson repeatedly predicted in the first half of 2020 that just 10,000 people in South Africa would die of Covid-19.
“We are challenged to understand how any model for South Africa could reasonably produce a death forecast of more than 10,000,” Hudson stated in June 2020.
Analysis by Wits University School of Governance’s Alex van der Heever, published by GroundUp, has convincingly shown that excess deaths in 2020 and 2021 have been almost entirely due to Covid-19. What this strongly suggests is that the total number of Covid-19 deaths in South Africa thus far is nearing 140,000.
Gurdasani’s damning critique of the Panda report was echoed by top economist Professor Jonathan Portes of the School of Politics and Economics at Kings College London, who told DM168 that Panda’s “estimates of longer-term impacts on life expectancy resulting from economic damage are not credible nor based on evidence.”
Portes, a former Chief Economist at the UK Cabinet Office from 2008 to 2011 (previously Chief Economist at the Department of Work & Pensions), described Panda’s claim that the long-term economic impact will be 5% to 10% as “implausible and unsupported.” Similarly, the claim that at least 10% of the South African population would experience a 100% increase in relative mortality “is not based on any credible model or data.”
Portes was not blasé about the importance of taking into account longer-term impacts of lockdowns, but he dismissed Panda as a serious or credible source of analysis for this. “The long-term economic impacts of the pandemic are a matter of serious concern, and there are real dilemmas and tradeoffs,” he said.
“However, taking grossly exaggerated estimates of the long-term economic impacts of lockdowns and translating them without evidence or context into health or mortality impacts is bad economics and bad policy.”
Panda has also strayed into anti-vaxxer disinformation. Recently Panda published a report by physicist and climate science denier Dr Denis Rancourt, who was banned from the University of Ottawa after years of controversy, during which Rancourt’s dean questioned his “mental wellbeing”. The report – the subheading of which summarises its major findings as Measures do not prevent deaths, transmission is not by contact, masks provide no benefit, vaccines are inherently dangerous – contains an entire section titled ‘Vaccines are inherently dangerous’.
Panda defended the decision to publish this report to DM168 on the grounds that “open debate is a prerequisite for science to thrive”.
Other authors published by Panda include Scott Atlas, an expert on magnetic resonance imaging who became one of President Donald Trump’s favourite Covid-19 “experts”. Atlas’s employer, Stanford University, distanced itself from Atlas, writing that “his actions have undermined and threatened public health even as countless lives have been lost to Covid-19”. Atlas encouraged citizens of Michigan to “rise up” against lockdown measures, even after armed militia stormed the Michigan Capitol building.
Panda also hosts a podcast called Pandacast, which has featured as a guest Randy Hillier, a Canadian MP who has formed an anti-lockdown caucus under cover of a Christian political group, and who has attracted controversy for refusing to adhere to lockdown measures. Canadian health officials have accused him of repeatedly spreading Covid-19 misinformation.
It has also hosted Dr Wolfgang Wodarg, described by the journal Nature as a “prime mover behind the fake pandemic outcry”; a “self-proclaimed expert in lung disease who left medical practice in 1994” and who has “a history of dubious positioning with respect to biotech”.
Wodarg, together with Panda’s scientific advisor Mike Yeadon, filed a petition with the European Medicines Agency on 1 December calling for suspension of pharmaceutical companies’ Covid-19 vaccine efforts.
Yeadon is described on the Panda website as believing that the “pandemic was over in the [Northern Hemisphere] summer”.
Panda representatives have responded aggressively to criticism while vocally lobbying the South African government to end lockdown. It has also made no secret of its international aspirations. In a crowdfunding appeal hosted by the website of a related lobby group called Business for Ending Lockdown, the group asks for money to enable “Panda to lead the world against lockdown”.
Panda has repeatedly defended its actions on the grounds that the mainstream media is opposed to any science that is anti-lockdown. But to its critics, Panda is fundamentally unscientific itself – and harmfully muddying the waters on issues critical to preserving public health.
“Nick Hudson and Panda and their supporters have been a blight on public discourse over the past year,” GroundUp editor Nathan Geffen told DM168. DM168
CONTROVERSIAL STATEMENTS BY PANDA FOUNDER NICK HUDSON:
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.
"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"
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