Infectious Diseases

Overreaction or Underreaction: Coronavirus and Dealing with Missing Data

Posted on 23 March 2020

As of the time of writing, global deaths from COVID-19 have risen to over 15000, and countries around the world have put in place measures to limit the spread of the virus. The goal is simple: to disperse cases over a longer period of time to prevent health services from being overwhelmed. But some scientists have questioned whether this strategy really does more good than harm.

Beautiful, I. (2020). COVID-19 #CoronaVirus Infographic Datapack — Information is Beautiful. Retrieved 23 March 2020, from

The approaches taken by different countries to battle coronavirus have varied greatly in their nature, rapidity, and the extent to which they have been enforced. This is in part because data concerning the effectiveness of these measures is poor. For a start, figures for the number of coronavirus cases and death rates depend heavily on factors such as the frequency and quality of testing, making it difficult to assess the scale of the problem. We must then weigh up the benefits of social distancing measures with the potential dangers.

In this article, Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis questions whether some of the measures being taken are justified, considering their economic impact and the lack of data to back them up.

In the absence of data, prepare-for-the-worst reasoning leads to extreme measures of social distancing and lockdowns. Unfortunately, we do not know if these measures work.

In the coronavirus pandemic, we’re making decisions without reliable data. (2020). Retrieved 23 March 2020, from

Put a stall to the entire economy. Tell people to stay at their homes, get depressed, commit suicide, domestic violence. Who knows? Child abuse, children losing their education, companies crashing … unemployment, the stock market already dropping 20 per cent. Is that the solution?

Prominent scientist dares to ask: Has the COVID-19 response gone too far? | CBC News. (2020). Retrieved 23 March 2020, from

While in agreement that the data is limited, Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch argues in his response that there is still enough data to justify action.

We know enough to act; indeed, there is an imperative to act strongly and swiftly. It is true that we can’t be sure either how many infections there have been in any population or the risk of needing intensive care or the case fatality rate. Nonetheless, two things are clear. First, the number of severe cases — the product of these two unknowns — becomes fearsome in country after country if the infection is allowed to spread. […] Second, if we don’t apply control measures, the number of cases will keep going up exponentially beyond the already fearsome numbers we have seen.

We know enough now to act decisively against Covid-19 – STAT. (2020). Retrieved 23 March 2020, from

Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the World Health Organization‘s emergencies program, warned that we must not be paralysed by the fear of making mistakes – that in this situation, acting swiftly is paramount. While Ioannidis agrees that we may have no choice but to act, he believes that doing so without a clear plan is ”extremely dangerous”.

We desperately need to know, No. 1, the prevalence of infection, and No. 2, the incidence of new infections. If we make decisions with such tremendous uncertainty, we can get tremendous harms.

Prominent scientist dares to ask: Has the COVID-19 response gone too far? | CBC News. (2020). Retrieved 23 March 2020, from


A fiasco in the making? As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold, we are making decisions without reliable data:

We know enough now to act decisively against Covid-19. Social distancing is a good place to start:

Prominent scientist dares to ask: Has the COVID-19 response gone too far?:

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