"We're Playing Roulette"

New Study Explores Risk Played By Children in COVID Spread

Few other issues are as hotly debated as school closures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. New data from Austria now provides further evidence of the risk posed by children. The virus mutant B.1.1.7 could make the situation even worse.

By Rafaela von Bredow

New data suggests children are also bringing the coronavirus into their homes. Foto: Imgorthand / Getty Images

Scientists have little choice these days but to play the role of diplomat to a certain extent, particularly when they have uncomfortable truths to report. And even more so when they have to discuss those truths with politicians who, for their part, are tired of having to announce unpleasant news.

The question of school closures and how long we have to put up with them is clearly one of those unpleasant subjects. It was also the focus of an interesting Zoom meeting on Jan. 4, when scientists led by Michael Wagner, a professor of microbiology at the University of Vienna, officially presented a far-reaching, representative study on the coronavirus in schools in Austria.

Each meeting participant occupied their little square on the screen, including a politician who sought to paint an optimistic picture despite the gloomy outlook - and a handful of scientists who managed to endure that optimism with consistently amiable expressions on their faces. Only the microbiologist Wagner found it all to be a bit too much at one point.

Back in mid-December, Wagner already told DER SPIEGEL that an important trend had emerged in the course of the study: Namely that schoolchildren are just as likely to get infected with the coronavirus as their teachers. 

The only difference is that their infection usually remains undetected because they rarely show symptoms. As such, the risk of infection from children is downplayed. Wagner says it is likely that they are "significantly undertested,” resulting in a correspondingly high number of unreported cases, he believes.

Wagner and a consortium of scientists at the medical universities in Graz, Linz and Innsbruck have now shined the spotlight on these cases and will continue to do so until the end of the school year. 

The findings so far have only been published on a preprint server. Eight additional evaluation dates are planned, on which scientists will sample teachers and children from the first through eighth grades at more than 240 schools across the country. 

They are relying on the standard PCR test on their search for the virus. The subjects examined have no symptoms – and no idea whether or not they are infected with SARS-CoV-2 or not. Thus far, up to 1.42 percent of study participants have tested positive – and the rate was the same for children and adults.

Among the schoolchildren, there was no difference among age groups: Just as many primary school children were infected as were secondary school children. That find contradicted the long-held belief that younger children would be largely spared from SARS-CoV-2 infections.

"Extrapolated, that means there was an infected child sitting in about every third to fourth classroom in November,” said Wagner. "Without knowing they were infected.” A girl with no cough or sneeze, a boy who doesn't even have a runny nose - unidentified virus spreaders.

The Austrian study began attracting attention in its early planning phase in the spring because of the unusual way in which samples are taken: Study participants are asked to gargle. 

They are not allowed to eat or drink anything for an hour prior to the test, and are then asked to gargle five milliliters of a saline solution in their throats. The less intrusive method - which forgoes the uncomfortable insertion of a long swab to the back of the throat - was seen as a good way to increase the willingness of younger children, in particular, to submit to repeated testing, as required by the study.

Reflecting the Surrounding Infection Rates

The researchers began the study in late September and took the first set of samples in October. The second sample set in November made it clear that the prevalence had increased, tripling or quadrupling – parallel with the increase across the country. 

That finding made it clear that schools mirror the rate of infections surrounding them. 

Even more important, Wagner said: "In a shutdown during which schools remain open, when many people continue to congregate there, they pose a not insignificant risk of spread.”

Prominent German virologist Christian Drosten of Charité University Hospital in Berlin, who advised the German government to close schools during the first coronavirus lockdown in the spring, believes the data from the Austrian study is "really important because it confirms what you see in England and now allows you to apply the very good English data to a country whose school system is even more similarly structured to ours" in Germany.

In June and July, when schools in Britain were reopened after the initial lockdown, researchers from the National Health Service in England found that schools aren’t spared of COVID as many had hoped and that there are as many infections among pupils as there are elsewhere.

   German virologist Christian Drosten Foto: Stefan Boness / ipon / imago images

The latest round of the large React1 study in the UK - a large-scale, representative survey that continuously screens volunteers using throat swabs throughout the country - delivered similar results. 

From mid-November to the beginning of December, more 13- to 17-year-old students tested positive than any other age group. One in 50 pupils tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

One figure from the Austrian study is particularly noteworthy from a socio-political standpoint: The rate of undetected infections is twice as high in poorer districts than in wealthier ones. 

"That doesn’t necessarily mean that conditions at the schools in the respective areas are different,” explains Peter Willeit of the Medical University of Innsbruck who, together with Wagner, is one of the heads of the research consortium. "

It may also be because of the social environment.” Parents who cannot work from home, for example, are far more likely to send their child to school even if he or she is showing slight symptoms.

On top of that is the new virus mutant, called B.1.1.7, which was first identified in Britain but which has long since begun circulating in other countries, including Germany and Austria. 

The new "variant of concern" appears to be 50 to 70 percent more contagious than the virus we have been dealing with thus far. So contagious, in fact, that the November lockdown in Britain did little to help. 

On the contrary: The tough contact restrictions and social distancing rules that helped drive the infection rate of the original virus down by a third have failed completely this time around, with the incidence rate having tripled.

If that wasn't concerning enough, B.1.1.7 also seems to spread more easily among children and adolescents. Data in a study from Imperial College London shows a "shift in the age composition” in reported cases, "with a larger share of under 20-year-olds.”

"I’ve been hearing a lot about how children are more infectious now and contribute to transmission because of the B.1.1.7 variant,” Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist and doctor at Queen Mary University in London, tweeted last week. But, she adds, it’s "a myth” that children weren’t transmitting the disease earlier, and it’s time "to lay this to rest.”

Gurdasani told DER SPIEGEL that the evidence is clear. "It's clear from evidence across the globe and within the UK that schools have contributed significantly to community transmission," she said. She cites numerous studies showing the extent to which school closures slowed the spread of the pandemic. 

In the U.S., for example, closures reduced the number of cases and mortality by up to 60 percent. In addition, recent analysis by the Office for National Statistics found that two- to 12-year-olds were twice as likely to be infected as adults. 

In other words, they are carrying the virus into their homes, where they can pass the virus to their parents and siblings. Their older siblings (up to age 16) are seven times more likely to be infected.

During the Zoom presentation of the Austrian study, Martin Netzer also spoke. Netzer is secretary general of the Austrian Ministry of Education, Science and Research, which is financing the schools study. 

"We expect to be able to reopen schools on Jan. 18, as scheduled,” he said, adding that the ministry is currently considering measures to support that reopening – weekly, nationwide tests for teachers, for example. 

At the very least, he said, more testing could be done in schools in metropolitan areas.

Reevaluating Children's Role in the Pandemic

The first round of measurements in the study in October already revealed the especially high number of unreported cases at schools in socioeconomically weak areas. 

But is broader testing now firmly planned for the period starting after Jan. 18? 

Apparently not. "These are considerations,” Netzer said.

Study director Wagner smiled. And he continued to smile when the question arose as to whether the new B.1.1.7 strain offers sufficient cause to keep schools closed - particularly given that of the five B.1.1.7 infections discovered in Austria by the time of the Zoom meeting, three were children. 

Netzer was disinclined to see that finding as an imperative for action. It is, he said, "difficult to assess how dangerous it really is." Simply closing schools on a hunch, he said, "appears excessive to us."

Wagner continued smiling, but started getting agitated. "If I could briefly interject,” he said. We don't know yet whether the new virus strain may already be circulating in schools, he said, but it is known what might happen if stricter steps aren’t taken to contain the virus. 

"The larger the pool of viruses we allow to circulate, the more likely it is that mutations will occur. And they could make life quite difficult for us." Particularly, he said, if a new strain emerges against which the current vaccines are ineffective. "We're playing roulette.”

           Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani Foto: privat

German virologist Drosten told DER SPIEGEL that scientists must interpret the data available without any bias, "even when keeping the best interests of children in mind." 

He also argues that scientists who haven’t taken a closer look at the new data since the autumn break should reconsider their views. 

"Sometimes that's not easy, especially since, unfortunately, a certain rigidity crept into some professional and scientific circles over the summer and fall," Drosten said.

British epidemiologist Gurdasani also doesn't understand why, in the UK at least, new ideas to help children continue learning in the pandemic haven't long since been developed.

there haven’t been good plans for some time now for allowing children to continue learning, despite the virus. 

Her conclusion: 

"It is important that schools are made safer. Had this been done much earlier on, it's possible that school closures may not have been needed." 

Why investors are looking beyond headline GDP data

Pandemic spurs shift away from traditional metrics of economic growth

James Sweeney 

Investors are turning to data such as Google search trends or retail footfall for real-time economic information © FT montage

The pandemic has accelerated the trend among investors towards using alternatives to national accounts data in measuring macroeconomic performance.

Body temperatures, foot traffic, internet trends and stimulus cheque arrivals represent a small sample of the data that have been critical in assessing real-time economic activity. 

These measures have told a more precise story of the 2020 economy than national account measures such as gross domestic product or inflation.

The limitations of national accounts data has been a hot topic in recent years, even though it has long been known that they involve serious measurement problems and are only crudely related to concepts such as living standards and the cost of living. 

The pandemic might mark the point at which the prestige and influence of GDP-based measures in public discourse have finally peaked.

It is worth considering measurement and misuse issues separately. The headline national accounts figure — nominal GDP — is a useful, clearly defined and well-measured statistic. 

However, there is much that it does not cover, including at-home production and free goods that comprise many now-ubiquitous internet services. 

Nominal GDP equals real GDP plus inflation, and it is in this apportioning into parts where serious problems mount.

Basically, if inflation is wrong, real growth is too. In the 1990s, the Boskin Commission found that US inflation was upwardly biased, suggesting that real GDP was growing faster than the official numbers showed. 

In a 1996 meeting of the US Federal Reserve policy committee, Alan Greenspan said that “price stability” meant to him 0 per cent inflation, while his colleague Janet Yellen suggested that, given known mismeasurement issues, 2 per cent was a better target.

Since then, growth in nominal GDP, real GDP, working-age population, business investment, and prices have weakened versus older trends in the US and many other economies.

But while the decline in nominal GDP reflects a true, measurable decline, our certitude on the change in measures lower in the national accounts hierarchy is less. 

The large revisions that have occurred for national accounts-based US consumer inflation further underscore the tenuousness of our real-time inflation knowledge.

To rectify the problems with these measures, there are efforts on alternatives such as disease-based price indexes, happiness measures, the “billion prices” project to track data from retailers around the world on a daily basis, and activity trackers sourced from satellites. 

There are also attempts to “correct” the traditional measures with ad hoc adjustments or by switching emphases toward less well-known variants.

The possibility of mismeasurement in national accounts is well known but the misuse of those data is more consequential. 

By “misuse” we mean the casual assertion that these statistics represent everyday concepts of living standards and the cost of living. 

This error is clearest when we examine long-term GDP estimates, and ask whether it is plausible that living standards were changing in the steady, linear way that long-term real per capita GDP charts suggest.

According to historian Jürgen Osterhammel: “That an ever-increasing share of all work came to be performed indoors was a great novelty of the 19th century.”

Measured farm or factory output per worker cannot capture the change when a worker whose forefathers picked crops became permanently engaged in sheltered indoor employment.

Similarly, we sometimes encounter claims of jumping real wages and even “rising living standards” after the 14th-century plague. 

Historical accounts of life after 1348 in western Europe do not, however, paint such a rosy picture of life in that period. 

Last year’s GDP data will hardly inform future generations about economic life in 2020.

Current policy debates over further pandemic relief reflect the divide between those who focus on granular details revealed by new data approaches and those who focus on headline national accounts measures.

For example, should additional fiscal stimulus measures target overall GDP or should it target households or businesses that are suffering most for no fault of their own?

The broadening use of contemporary “narrow” data is offering rich perspectives of economic life. 

Alternative indicators have enabled excellent real-time analysis during the pandemic. 

This has helped to guide policy decisions and minimise the macroeconomic damage.

The writer is chief economist at Credit Suisse

Save the Constitution From Big Tech

Congressional threats and inducements make Twitter and Facebook censorship a free-speech violation.

By Vivek Ramaswamy and Jed Rubenfeld


Facebook and Twitter banned President Trump and numerous supporters after last week’s disgraceful Capitol riot, and Google, Apple and Amazon blocked Twitter alternative Parler—all based on claims of “incitement to violence” and “hate speech.” 

Silicon Valley titans cite their ever-changing “terms of service,” but their selective enforcement suggests political motives.

Conventional wisdom holds that technology companies are free to regulate content because they are private, and the First Amendment protects only against government censorship. 

That view is wrong: Google, Facebook and Twitter should be treated as state actors under existing legal doctrines. Using a combination of statutory inducements and regulatory threats, Congress has co-opted Silicon Valley to do through the back door what government cannot directly accomplish under the Constitution.

It is “axiomatic,” the Supreme Court held in Norwood v. Harrison (1973), that the government “may not induce, encourage or promote private persons to accomplish what it is constitutionally forbidden to accomplish.” 

That’s what Congress did by enacting Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which not only permits tech companies to censor constitutionally protected speech but immunizes them from liability if they do so.

The justices have long held that the provision of such immunity can turn private action into state action. 

In Railway Employees’ Department v. Hanson (1956), they found state action in private union-employer closed-shop agreements—which force all employees to join the union—because Congress had passed a statute immunizing such agreements from liability under state law. In Skinner v. Railway Labor Executives Association(1989), the court again found state action in private-party conduct—drug tests for company employees—because federal regulations immunized railroads from liability if they conducted those tests. 

In both cases, as with Section 230, the federal government didn’t mandate anything; it merely pre-empted state law, protecting certain private parties from lawsuits if they engaged in the conduct Congress was promoting.

Section 230 is the carrot, and there’s also a stick: Congressional Democrats have repeatedly made explicit threats to social-media giants if they failed to censor speech those lawmakers disfavored. 

In April 2019, Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond warned Facebook and Google that they had “better” restrict what he and his colleagues saw as harmful content or face regulation: “We’re going to make it swift, we’re going to make it strong, and we’re going to hold them very accountable.” 

New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler added: “Let’s see what happens by just pressuring them.”

Such threats have worked. In September 2019, the day before another congressional grilling was to begin, Facebook announced important new restrictions on “hate speech.” 

It’s no accident that big tech took its most aggressive steps against Mr. Trump just as Democrats were poised to take control of the White House and Senate. 

Prominent Democrats promptly voiced approval of big tech’s actions, which Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal expressly attributed to “a shift in the political winds.”

For more than half a century courts have held that governmental threats can turn private conduct into state action. In Bantam Books v. Sullivan (1963), the Supreme Court found a First Amendment violation when a private bookseller stopped selling works state officials deemed “objectionable” after they sent him a veiled threat of prosecution. 

In Carlin Communications v. Mountain States Telephone & Telegraph Co. (1987), the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found state action when an official induced a telephone company to stop carrying offensive content, again by threat of prosecution.

As the Second Circuit held in Hammerhead Enterprises v. Brezenoff (1983), the test is whether “comments of a government official can reasonably be interpreted as intimating that some form of punishment or adverse regulatory action will follow the failure to accede to the official’s request.” 

Mr. Richmond’s comments, along with many others, easily meet that test. Notably, the Ninth Circuit held it didn’t matter whether the threats were the “real motivating force” behind the private party’s conduct; state action exists even if he “would have acted as he did independently.”

Either Section 230 or congressional pressure alone might be sufficient to create state action. The combination surely is. Suppose a Republican Congress enacted a statute giving legal immunity to any private party that obstructs access to abortion clinics. 

Suppose further that Republican congressmen explicitly threatened private companies with punitive laws if they fail to act against abortion clinics. If those companies did as Congress demands, then got an attaboy from lawmakers, progressives would see the constitutional problem.

Republicans including Mr. Trump have called for Section 230’s repeal. That misses the point: The damage has already been done. Facebook and Twitter probably wouldn’t have become behemoths without Section 230, but repealing the statute now may simply further empower those companies, which are better able than smaller competitors to withstand liability. 

The right answer is for courts to recognize what lawmakers did: suck the air out of the Constitution by dispatching big tech to do what they can’t. Now it’s up to judges to fill the vacuum, with sound legal precedents in hand.

Liberals should worry too. If big tech can shut down the president, what stops them from doing the same to Joe Biden if he backs antitrust suits against social-media companies? 

Our Framers deeply understood the need for checks and balances in government. They couldn’t anticipate the rise of a new Leviathan with unchecked power to make extraconstitutional political judgments under the mantle of private enterprise.

American democracy is under siege from Silicon Valley’s political plutocracy. Next week Mr. Trump will be a private citizen without a Twitter account. 

Our new class of corporate monarchs will still control whether and how Americans can hear from the president—or anyone else. We have devolved from a three-branch federal government to one with a branch office in Silicon Valley. 

But there’s no democratic accountability for Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg.

Hard cases make bad law, and Mr. Trump presented America with a hard case last week. The breach of the Capitol is a stain on American history, and Silicon Valley seized on the attack to do what Congress couldn’t by suppressing the kind of political speech the First Amendment was designed to protect.

There’s more at stake than free speech. Suppression of dissent breeds terror. The answer to last week’s horror should be to open more channels of dialogue, not to close them off. If disaffected Americans no longer have an outlet to be heard, the siege of Capitol Hill will look like a friendly parley compared with what’s to come.

Ordinary Americans understand the First Amendment better than the elites do. Users who say Facebook, Twitter and Google are violating their constitutional rights are right. 

Aggrieved plaintiffs should sue these companies now to protect the voice of every American—and our constitutional democracy.

Mr. Ramaswamy is founder and CEO of Roivant Sciences and author of the forthcoming book “Woke Inc.” Mr. Rubenfeld, a constitutional scholar, has advised parties who are litigating or may litigate against Google and Facebook.

Saving US Democracy from Corporate America

Don't be fooled by corporate statements defending the rule of law after the insurrection by Donald Trump's supporters at the US Capitol. Having long exploited the US constitutional order for its own gain, corporate America is not suddenly part of the solution; it is part of the problem.

Katharina Pistor

WASHINGTON, DC – The insurgency that overran the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, just as Congress was certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, was a wake-up call for business in America. 

And yet, most sectors and companies have looked the other way.

To its credit, the National Association of Manufacturers responded to the insurrection with a sharply worded statement condemning the violence and calling on political leaders and law enforcement to bring the disorder to an end. “This is not law and order. This is chaos,” the association said. “It is mob rule. It is dangerous.”

The NAM statement has been widely praised in the media. Coming from a trade group that has long supported US President Donald Trump, it is certainly better than the response from those congressional Republicans who have promoted Trump’s lies about the election even after the insurrection. 

But the NAM statement ultimately falls short in its own way. At stake in the current political crisis is not just “law and order” but democratic constitutionalism itself.

“Law and order,” after all, is what every tinpot dictator invokes after installing themselves in office by whatever means available. In this context, mob rule is often a necessary interlude from one “order” to another. 

What matters is the extent to which a particular political order adheres to democratic and constitutional principles. 

This is the criterion by which we distinguish between orders that should be toppled (by revolution or otherwise) and those that should be protected through all constitutional means at our disposal.

Playing by the rules is critical for social peace and economic prosperity. 

But for too long, businesses in the US and elsewhere have paid lip service to “the rule of law” while lobbying for preferential legal changes. 

Much of the “law and order” that they want to uphold exists for their own benefit, irrespective of how the electorate has voted or of what average households really need from the government.

Big business controls the political process not with stronger, better arguments, but with money. 

And the US Supreme Court has played its own role in the problem by declaring in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that spending by corporations or wealthy individuals to influence opinions is no different from the free speech exercised by natural persons.

Over the past four years, the Trump administration has delivered on pretty much everything that corporate America could have wanted. 

It cut corporate taxes, rolled back many of the regulations that were instituted to protect the financial system from another crisis, and gutted environmental-protection policies, even as the disastrous effects of climate change have become more obvious.

Even during the pandemic, the administration has favored large corporations over small businesses, and asset-holders over ordinary people. Last but not least, vacancies on the federal bench have been filled with conservative judges who will favor business over labor, the environment, and racial and gender equality.

After reaping these benefits for four years, corporate America might have been expected to abandon the demagogue in the White House once he had turned openly against the constitutional order upon which those gains were legally codified. 

Yet, most business leaders stood by as Trump spread lies about the election and the electoral certification process, and still have not spoken up even after he incited his followers to march on the Capitol. 

According to Bloomberg, the events of January 6, which left five people dead, have been met with “silence” from “some of the president’s wealthiest donors.”

Meanwhile, Big Tech platforms, already on the defensive after a series of lawsuits and announced antitrust investigations, have finally decided to enforce their own rules of conduct, having realized belatedly that outright lies and incitement to violence might not be so good for business after all.

In October 2019, on the cusp of the new election campaign cycle, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hid behind the First Amendment when faced with demands that he do more to control how his platform is used. 

Only after violent rioters had ransacked the Capitol did he finally suspend Trump’s account. Similarly, Twitter, which has served as Trump’s bully pulpit since day one of his administration, finally suspended his account after he continued to make false claims about election fraud following the insurrection.

Needless to say, Big Tech’s free-speech advocacy has always been a ruse in the service of its bottom line. None of the major social-media platforms has ever actually operated as a neutral “marketplace of ideas.” 

Rather, their algorithms are specifically designed to spread high-impact, emotionally charged posts, usually without distinguishing between credible news outlets and professional propagandists. 

Worse, the major platforms have long known that users “engage” more with outrageous lies than with subtle truths, and are more likely to be incited by hatred and tribalism than persuaded by arguments.

Trump’s false claims about voter fraud and a “stolen” election spread like wildfire across these platforms, even though none withstood scrutiny when brought before dozens of courts – including many Trump-appointed judges. 

In fact, Facebook and Twitter continued to disseminate lies that Trump’s own lawyers dared not repeat in court for fear of the legal repercussions.

The suspension of Trump’s social-media accounts has triggered a debate between those decrying Soviet-style censorship and those arguing that private firms can do as they please. But both sides have missed the point. 

Like all companies, the tech giants operate within a system of law that rests on a democratic constitutional order. 

Determining the rules by which social media operates is a task for elected legislatures, not for Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, or any other Big Tech tycoon. 

It is lawmakers who decide whether and how these platforms should be shielded from liability for the content they carry, or whether they should be deemed utilities and regulated accordingly.

If democratic constitutionalism is to survive, democratic governance must prevail over business interests. Corporate America can hardly be trusted to stand in for democracy after it has once again demonstrated its lack of interest, if not outright contempt for, the democratic order.

Katharina Pistor, Professor of Comparative Law at Columbia Law School, is the author of The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality.