Lancet editor Richard Horton has harsh words for Trump, hope for science
By William Booth <>
July 29, 2020 at 10:14 a.m. CDT

LONDON — As editor of the Lancet medical journal, Richard Horton has
overseen publication of some of the most-cited papers of the coronavirus
pandemic, from the first reports from Chinese scientists to the latest
on vaccine
He has also emerged as an outspoken voice on the failures of the global

In May, his editorial board — based mostly in Britain — stirred controversy
by wading into U.S. politics and advocating
that Americans should elect a president “who will understand that public
health should not be guided by partisan politics.”

Now Horton is out with a new book, “The Covid-19 Catastrophe: What’s Gone
Wrong and How to Stop it Happening Again
It is an angry work, thrumming with righteous disbelief over mistakes made
in the past six months. He accuses President Trump of a “crime against
humanity” for cutting World Health Organization funding during a pandemic.
He blames British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for thousands of excess

Horton spoke via Zoom with The Washington Post to explain why he thinks
politicians and scientific advisers in the United States and Europe got so
much so wrong. He also shared what he expects from research on vaccines and

This interview has been edited for length.

*Q: * *You published the first papers from Chinese doctors on the front
line. The United States has been highly critical of China. What do you
think of the Chinese response in those early days?*

*A: *During the first SARS epidemic, Chinese authorities said there was no
outbreak. They tried to deceive the world
until the World Health Organization called them out on it. I think China
learned you can’t sit on this kind of information for long.

I think during December last year, Chinese authorities tried to chase down
what this mysterious pneumonia was, tried to understand the nature of the
outbreak. By the end of the month, they realized they had something very
serious on their hands.

*Q: * *A team from the World Health Organization is in China now trying to
learn more about the origins.*

*A: *We know some of these early cases seem to be linked to the live
markets in Wuhan. But some were not. We don’t really understand the lines
of transmission of the virus in those early days. There’s clearly a
connection between wildlife, the environment, the urban setting. But we
don’t really know where the pieces of that puzzle are or how the pieces of
that puzzle join.

*Q: * *A mysterious pneumonia arises in December. The pathogen is
identified in weeks. Its genetic code is published in January. Now we have
two dozen vaccines now in human trials
That seems blisteringly fast.*

*A: *I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. I’ve been at the Lancet
30 years, and I’ve seen many epidemics, many humanitarian emergencies
around the world. And I’ve never seen the world’s research community
respond so fast.

What’s so impressive is that this has been a truly global collective
effort. Every country’s scientists have responded. And so there’s been this
global community effort to bring knowledge to the front lines.

You described the book as angry. I was angry, yes. In the early days. And
still am, to an extent. But I hope the book’s not fully angry, because I
also want to look at the incredible opportunity this pandemic has shown.
Before this pandemic, the research community didn’t work as fast or as
efficiently on urgent problems. It is phenomenal to go from discovery of a
new virus to candidate vaccines in six months. That’s never happened before.

*Q: * *I think you would say that response by the scientific community has
been far better than the response of governments? *

*A: *Yes, and that’s one of the reasons I did get angry. I was seeing the
research community immediately kicking into action, gathering actionable
evidence, for use by policymakers and politicians. And nothing was

That’s not just a failure of politicians. It’s the failure of those medical
and science advisers who are giving advice to governments, because I don’t
think they picked it up quickly enough, either.

*Q: * *Italy goes into lockdown, then Spain, France, Germany, Britain and
parts of the United States. You can see dithering and dawdling. But Boris
Johnson tells people March 12 you’re going to lose a lot of your loved ones
A week later, the pubs are closing. A few days later, we’re in lockdown.
That’s not fast?*

*A: *In medical terms, it was slow. If you’ve got an acute public health
emergency, where the virus is literally growing exponentially in your
population, and it’s doubling every three days or so, then you don’t have a
week to make up your mind.

Now, let’s think about how you would respond. The World Health
Organization declares
a Public Health Emergency of International Concern
on Jan. 30. You would imagine that the Foreign Office or the Prime
Minister’s office would ask its embassy in Beijing to give them an
immediate report. Within 24 hours, they would have got the message back: A
SARS virus is tipping people into the hospital. No treatment, no vaccine,
many people dying. Prediction of a global pandemic.

So that’s sitting on the prime minister’s desk on Feb. 1. You would think
they would say: Okay, I need to be getting testing, tracing and isolation
systems in place. Have we got personal protective equipment? How are we
going to think about physical distancing? What’s our policy on schools? How
are we going to stop mass gatherings from transmitting this virus?

All of that should have been discussed within 48 or 72 hours after the
emergency was declared. It didn’t happen.

*Q: * *The British government always says: We follow the science. That is
comforting. These are smart people. What went wrong?*

*A: *It wasn’t just the United Kingdom, it was all of Europe and North
America. The scientists here didn’t take the science coming out of China

*Q: * *It was the virus ravaging northern Italy
that slapped them on the face?*

*A: *Exactly. It was only when the epidemic in Lombardy really took off.
That’s when Neil Ferguson [an epidemiologist at Imperial College London]
and others recalculated. They doubled the number of people being admitted
to intensive care in their models. And they suddenly saw the National
Health Service was going to be overwhelmed. That was the critical moment.

*Q: * *When the first Lancet papers came out from the ICUs in Wuhan
one clinician told me they read like something out of Stephen King novels.
This is terrifying, they said. And the Chinese are deploying sophisticated

*A: *They were doing everything that you would expect to see in a Western
medical setting. But, despite all of that, we didn’t believe it. I think
there was this judgment. It’s a little like the discussion we’re having
about China now. Can we really believe what they say? Are they really
competent in being able to manage these patients?

*Q: * *Do you have confidence in the Imperial College assessment that a
U.K. lockdown a week earlier could have cut deaths here in half? *

*A: *If we had locked down on March 6 instead of March 23, then we could
have absolutely saved 20,000-plus lives.

*Q: * *In your book, you write, “The story of covid-19 in the United States
is one of the strangest paradoxes of the whole pandemic. No other country
in the world has the concentration of scientific skill, technical knowledge
and productive capacity possessed by the U.S. It is the world’s scientific
superpower bar none. And yet this colossus of science utterly failed to
bring its expertise successfully to bear on the policy and politics of the
nation’s response.”*

*A: *That’s true.

*Q: * *What happened?*

*A: *This is hard. I love America. But it can be very parochial. I think
the fact that America sees itself as the greatest country in the world
means that it sees itself as impregnable. That view informs not just a
response to a pandemic, but attitudes to climate change and other threats.

I don’t think many American public health scientists and government
advisers read those papers we published. If they did, I don’t think that
they took them seriously. I think there was a very serious miscalculation
of the risk by American public health scientists.

I know Tony Fauci well, and his entire career has been forged on the fight
against AIDS. He’s a brilliant scientist. He is a brave man. But something
went wrong here. I wish I could give you a clear answer as to why, but I
can’t. I really can’t explain it.

*Q: * *Okay.*

*A: *I’m going to change my mind.

*Q: * *Science is nothing but changing your mind.*

*A: *Exactly. I’m just thinking back. I remember talking with some of the
HIV scientists in Atlanta in the 1990s and asking: Why didn’t you shout out
more under Reagan? Why aren’t you stronger advocates for public health,
when you know the evidence on safe needle exchange is so clear?

They said, “You don’t understand how it works here.” They’re all wearing
their Navy uniforms and saying to me, “We can’t be advocates.” Because if
you’re a government scientist, you’re there to work within the political
infrastructure of whatever administration is in power at that particular
time. And if the administration is left or right or whatever, you have to
fit into that political ambiance, and you can’t step outside it. And if you
do, you’ll be out.

Now, fast forward to the administration of Donald Trump, under the
particular CDC leadership we have now. It may well have been that there
were CDC scientists sitting in Atlanta who read those papers, who
understood what was coming. But they’re not allowed to go out there and be

*Q: * *The best of British science was seriously thinking about deploying
“herd immunity” as a defense in March — protecting the vulnerable but
letting this virus sweep through the general population. What were they

*A: *They were thinking influenza — because the only viral disease that was
in the frame, for a pandemic, the only thing we were planning for, was
influenza. We weren’t planning for SARS and were not able to pivot quickly

*Q: * *Let’s talk about beating the virus in body. There is some good stuff
coming along to help people who get sick fight the virus?*

*A: *There’s some old-fashioned antivirals, not specifically for the
and they’re currently undergoing clinical trials. We’ll see whether they
have an effect. They may not. It’s likely they either won’t have an effect
or the effects will be very modest. Then there are going to be new
antivirals more specific to coronavirus — we don’t have any of those that
are clearly ready for use. And then there’s going to be a category of drug
that’s not actually going to be against the virus, but against the thing
that kills you: the cytokine storm. It’s a super massive inflammatory
response that goes out of control. So one route to treating this condition
is to try to stop that explosion from happening.

*Q: * *That leads us to vaccines. It is amazing that we have three, four
types — RNA, DNA, inactivated virus, the crippled adenovirus
being trialed by the Oxford group. Are we going to have two or three
vaccines ready to go in December or January or February, with 70 or 75
percent effectiveness? Please say yes.*

*A: *So the positive news is that we’re making really rapid progress toward
a vaccine. There are something like 200 candidate vaccines around the world
that are being developed. There are about 15 to 20 that are in human
trials. We have every reason to be optimistic that by the end of this year,
we will have identified a vaccine, at least one, that has some measure of
effectiveness and is safe. So then it’s going to be a question next year of
turning up the volume of production and distributing that vaccine.

*Q: * *Hooray for vaccines!*

*A: *Hang on. A vaccine is not going to take this virus out of our society. A
vaccine is never 100 percent effective, 100 percent safe and available to
100 percent of people. We’re not going to get a vaccine to 7 billion people
on the planet, and 7 billion people on the planet aren’t going to want to
take it. I’m pretty sure we’re going to have a vaccine next year, but that
isn’t going to mean we’re going to be able to go back to our fully normal

*Q: * *And not everyone will accept a vaccine? You were involved in an
infamous episode here in Britain. The Lancet published a paper by Andrew
Wakefield in 1998 <>.
It was kind of a foundational paper for the anti- vaccine movement, as it
purported to link autism to the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
The paper was retracted, but it had done its damage. How can science
address these concerns?*

*A: *Yes, the anti-vaccine movement is mobilizing again. And I see Andrew
Wakefield has popped up in the United States and is part of the
anti-vaccine movement related to covid-19. There are different elements
within the anti-vaccination community. There is the extreme
anti-vaccination wing, and you’re never going to convince them with any
science. They’re just completely against vaccination. There’s a much larger
group of concerned citizens who want to do the right thing, but they’re
scared. They see the debate and don’t fully know what to make of it.

We need to be as transparent and honest as possible about the evidence. We
need to put every vaccine through the correct safety and effectiveness
testing. We don’t cut corners, and we listen to what people are saying. We
don’t call them crazy or nuts
or any other epithet. Our task should be to build confidence by giving
information and answering legitimate questions.

*Q: * *You work at the intersection of where science and research collide
with the massive egos of people who want credit for discoveries, for
vaccines and antivirals. There are many, many zeros in this game. The
pharmaceutical companies are going to make billions of dollars. Are these
folks looking after our best interests and not their best interests?*

*A: *I have confidence that the science is going to give us reliable
answers. But I’m not confident that the system we have in place is going to
deliver a fair outcome. We’re seeing your government and my government
buying up vaccines that are not yet ready, not yet available, but buying up
options on vaccines to protect their populations. That isn’t the way we
should be thinking. We have to have a global response and need to protect
those most at risk. We know who those people are. They’re older. People
with chronic diseases. They’re from black and minority ethnic populations,
and workers in the health system. They’re the people who need to get the
vaccine. Not me.

*Q: * *I want the shot.*

*A: *You’ll take it? Okay. But this risk of vaccine nationalism is very
real, and it shouldn’t be the strongest or the richest country that gets
access to a vaccine first. You and I are going to be fine. But a lot of
people aren’t. That doesn’t seem right.