Public Health

Law prof suggests COVID-19 will gradually weaken, spars with reporter who questions theory

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A New York University law professor who argued estimates of potential coronavirus deaths are exaggerated, partly because the virus may weaken over time, sparred with a New Yorker reporter in a Q&A interview.

Libertarian-minded law professor Richard Epstein laid out his theory in a March 16 article posted by the Hoover Institution, report the New Yorker and Above the Law. The article circulated among conservatives close to President Donald Trump and several administration officials, according to the Washington Post.

“At some tipping point,” Epstein wrote, “the most virulent viruses will be more likely to kill their hosts before the virus can spread. In contrast, the milder versions of the virus will wreak less damage to their host and thus will survive over the longer time span needed to spread from one person to another. Hence the rate of transmission will trend downward, as will the severity of the virus. It is a form of natural selection.”

Epstein cautioned that his analysis could be “all wrong, even deeply flawed. But the stakes are too high to continue on the current course without reexamining the data and the erroneous models that are predicting doom.”

Epstein originally predicted there would be 500 COVID-19 deaths in the United States, then revised the estimate to 5,000.

In his New Yorker interview, Epstein said it is an “evolutionary tendency” for the virus to weaken. “I do think that the tendency to weaken is there, and I’m willing to bet a great deal of money on it, in the sense that I think that this is right,” Epstein said.

The New Yorker spoke with two experts—Yale epidemiology professor Albert Ko, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases Daniel Kuritzkes—who disputed Epstein’s theory of a weakening virus. Ko said there is “absolutely no evidence” of that, while Kuritzkes said there is no proof of that in the instant case.

“To the extent we see that evolution taking place it is usually over a much vaster time scale,” Kuritzkes said.

Epstein said he regarded his 500-number estimate “as the single worst public-relations gaffe I’ve made in my entire life. But the question to ask … is not whether I chose the right number but whether I had the right model.”

Epstein emphasized in the New Yorker interview that his evolutionary argument is only a theory.

“Look, I’m not an empiricist, but, again, let me just be clear to you, because you’re much too skeptical,” Epstein told the reporter. “The evolutionary component has not been taken into account in these models, and so before one is so dismissive, what you really need to do is to get somebody who’s an expert on this stuff to look at the evolutionary theory and explain why a principle of natural selection doesn’t apply here.

“What I’m doing here is nothing exotic. I’m taking standard Darwinian economics—standard economic-evolutionary theory out of Darwin—and applying it to this particular case. And, if that’s wrong, somebody should tell me.”

Epstein appeared angered when the New Yorker reporter asked whether he should be “careful about offering up these theories” about scientific issues.

“You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you’re going to say that I’m a crackpot,” Epstein told the reporter, Isaac Chotiner. This is the exchange that followed:

Epstein: That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? That’s what you’re saying?

Chotiner: I’m not saying anything of the sort.

Epstein: Admit to it. You’re saying I’m a crackpot.

Chotiner: I’m not saying anything of the—

Epstein: Well, what am I then? I’m an amateur? You’re the great scholar on this?

Chotiner: No, no. I’m not a great scholar on this.

Epstein: Tell me what you think about the quality of the work!

Chotiner: OK, I’m going to tell you. I think the fact that I am not a great scholar on this, and I’m able to find these flaws or these holes in what you wrote is a sign that maybe you should’ve thought harder before writing it.

Epstein: What it shows is that you are a complete intellectual amateur. Period.

Chotiner: OK. Can I ask you one more question?

Epstein: You just don’t know anything about anything. You’re a journalist. Would you like to compare your resumé to mine?

Chotiner: No, actually, I would not.

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