Richard Smith: Doctors—beware the curse of optimism

Breakthroughs announced in the media are rarely breakthroughs. Disasters rarely prove as disastrous as when first splashed in the media. I kept both these Kipling-esque thoughts in mind when nearly 40 years ago I did my six years as a television doctor. I thought of them again as I heard John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine in Oxford, say on the radio that the press-released results of the covid-19 vaccine trial should mean that we would be back to normal by the Spring.

I learnt in my six years that I could do more harm by being optimistic rather than pessimistic about a new treatment. I was, for example, sceptical about treating multiple sclerosis with hyperbaric oxygen, which at the time was a comparatively new idea. Even in those days before social media, I was abused for my doubts. Forty years on the treatment is not endorsed by either the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), although lots of people still use it.

My scepticism was appropriate, and, although it might have annoyed some people, it didn’t do any harm. In contrast, I was somehow seduced by an electrical treatment for Bell’s palsy. I spoke positively about it, and many people, including a prominent comedian, contacted me and tried the treatment. It wasn’t any good, and I felt badly that I had created false hope.

As a television doctor, you don’t usually have the patient in front of you as real doctors do, and it’s not hard to be sceptical. But if you can feel the desperation of patients for something that will “cure” them, then it’s harder to be sceptical, which why many people are given treatments that may ultimately increase rather than decrease their suffering, particularly at the end of life.

Bell, who comes across well on the radio and has been heard repeatedly during the pandemic, must have felt the desperation in the country for “normality” and even in the voice of the interviewer, who had abandoned the scepticism we expect of journalists. Even investors, who are supposed to be cruelly rational, had cast aside any rationality and precipitated 40% jumps in the share prices of companies hit the hardest by the pandemic. Bell spelt out the many steps that need to be taken to have the vaccine licensed and rolled out, but when asked by the interviewer if we would be back to normal by the Spring he said yes.

It seems highly unlikely to me—and probably to Bell—that we will back to normal by the Spring. Indeed, we will probably never be back to life exactly as it was before the pandemic, which I suspect is what people mean by “normal.”

Producing the vaccine and testing it so quickly is a considerable scientific achievement, but it’s unsatisfactory that the results are announced in a press release. The manufacturer’s, Pfizer, seem to have broken their own protocol by looking at the results now. We don’t have the full data and must remain sceptical until we do. Even when we have the data we won’t know whether the vaccine prevents infection as opposed to symptoms. We won’t know how long immunity will last. How many people in the study were elderly or had comorbidity? Is the vaccine equally effective in them? Will it prevent hospital admission and death—the outcomes that interest us most? We’ll need a much larger trial to answer those questions; and we need a bigger trial to be confident about safety: vaccines for covid-19 will be given to billions, meaning a one in 200 000 serious side effect could affect thousands.

Then there are all the logistical problems of rolling out the vaccine to millions of people in Britain and billions worldwide. As one commentator said, vaccination not vaccines save lives, and the anti-vaxxers, assisted perhaps by Russia and China, will be getting to work.

Despite my scepticism, I like many others hope that Bell is right. I can then do my planned walk along Offa’s Dyke. But I think the population is better served by the scepticism of the mournful Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, than any understandable enthusiasm to tell people what they would like to hear.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.