Tim Noakes says sorry for his Covid-19 comments ... well, sort of
Sports scientist says journo who criticised his words as ‘dangerously misleading’ didn’t get the point he was making
Prof Tim Noakes, who faced backlash this week after his comments on the novel coronavirus, says while he got some information wrong, one thing remains true: diabetics and those with heart disease are at much greater risk of dying from the disease.
Noakes, a retired sports scientist and advocate of the Banting movement (low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet), said he was incorrect to refer to Covid-19 as a DNA rather than RNA virus, but “that is besides the point”.
“The basis of my radio interview was about what individuals can do to protect themselves against Covid-19. I was saying that people must be healthy and not be overweight, as there is evidence that if you have diabetes or heart disease that increases your risk of a fatal outcome from a Covid-19 infection by five to 10-fold.”
In an interview with CCFM, a community radio station in Cape Town, he said Covid-19 seemed to attack red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen to the body.
He received a tongue-lashing from journalist and founder of news agency GroundUp, Nathan Geffen, who described the interview with Noakes as “dangerously misleading and containing elementary errors”.
This is not the way an ethical scientist should talk to the general public.Nathan Geffen
“Noakes proposes the theory with supreme confidence. Despite admitting that he has no expertise in virology, there’s no caution and no caveats. This is not the way an ethical scientist should talk to the general public. He also talks in a semi-conspiratorial tone, with the implication that he and a few others have it right, while the vast majority of doctors and scientists are too stubborn to see it their way,” Geffen said.
But Noakes lashed back, accusing Geffen of having little knowledge of medicine and physiology.
“What I find particularly interesting is that Geffen is a recently graduated computer scientist with zero training in medicine, physiology, pharmacology or pathology. Yet he believes that it’s quite appropriate to teach me medicine and physiology, despite the fact that I taught physiology to medical and sports science students for more than 30 years,” Noakes said.
“He does not acknowledge that his article is published by him, in his own online journal, with him as the editor and publisher, and without any external ‘peer review’. Nor did he ever ask me for my opinion, which is the basis of good, fair and responsible journalism.
“In that interview, I said if red blood cells are damaged, as is the case with diabetic patients, it may be one reason diabetics do less well when they contract this infection. Hence, it’s important for people to make sure they are healthy and are eating healthy foods. What I’m trying to do is to get people to understand the complexities involved.
“I also said that this virus is a much more complex disease than we yet fully understand. For example, there is a set of patients who have very significant reductions in the blood oxygen levels, but their lungs are less affected than would be expected. The most probable explanation is that the virus is affecting the way in which oxygen is bound to their red blood cells. There is a growing realisation that trying to treat these patients by putting them on a ventilator may do more harm than good.”
Responding to Geffen’s criticism that he punts hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the virus, and that there is positive evidence for the drug, despite resistance to its use by the medical community because US President Donald Trump promoted it, Noakes said: “I mentioned this in passing, that this drug might be helpful if the virus does influence the functioning of red blood cells.
“I did not say we must now treat Covid-19 with the drug. I suggested there is growing evidence that the drug can be used to treat the virus. My comments were based on possibility and were not absolute.”
In a follow-up interview on Cape Talk on Wednesday, he said his views about red blood cells were based on hypothesis and later apologised if they caused confusion or harm to listeners.
“The beauty of hypothesis is that it drives thinking. You may have someone listening to that CCFM interview who says: ‘I want to be a scientist and want to prove something about red blood cells’. What really worries me is that we are closing down discussion on this important topic.
“If I caused harm or distress ... I apologise profusely, because this was never my intention.
“My intention was to give people hope. And the hope is that there is a small proportion of the population at risk of this disease. That’s the real important point. It is older people who have chronic comorbidities ... they are the ones at real risk and the message is that they should be doing something about it, and all of us should try to be metabolically healthier.”
He encouraged people to “keep their eyes open and read” to find out more about Covid-19, “as you will never know who is right”.