The Telegraph’s Henry Bodkin Publishes Disinformation – 12-15 year olds are not “most responsible for COVID-19 spread”.

Henry Bodkin wrote in the Telegraph that 12-15 year olds were significant spreaders of COVID-19. When I asked him to prove his claim, he was unable to do so.

40,000-Person Iceland Study Finds Youth Under 15 Half as Likely to Catch and Spread Coronavirus

National Geographic

On the 11th of May, the Telegraph’s Health and Science Correspondent Henry Bodkin made a bold claim in an article promoting vaccination in the 12-15-year-old cohort.

Henry would write,

The pharmaceutical giant has formally asked the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for permission to use the jab in 12 to 15-year-olds – one of the age groups most responsible for spreading the virus. (emphasis added)

Henry Bodkin

Being the first time I had heard such a claim I would tweet to Henry asking him for a source.

He wouldn’t respond to me initially but did to another Twitter user by supplying a link to an article in the British Medical Journal supporting vaccinations in 12-15-year-olds to which I replied.

Henry would then respond to me citing the latest ONS Infection Survey.

Having discovered soon after that Henry had attached his email address to his Twitter profile and also aware that a bit of a ‘pile-on’ had been initiated by my tweets to him, I decided to take the exchange to email to which Henry was receptive of at first.

The ONS Infection Survey

On the 7th May the ONS released its latest update on the Infection Survey which attempts to model infection rates in the country in different age groups. Having analysed the accompanying dataset we could find no referencing of age groups that were believed to be bigger transmitters of the virus than others.

The 12-15 cohort falls under the “School Year 7 to School Year 11” bracket and whilst the above data only refers to ‘the estimated percentage of test positivity rates’ for that cohort, it was all that we could find in the dataset provided by the ONS that referred to modelled estimates in the different age ranges.

The Emails

Unable to find data supporting Bodkin’s claim, I decided to email and ask him if he could be a little more specific.

Hello Henry, 

I tweeted you today about a claim you made in your latest Telegraph article as I hadn’t noted your email address on your Twitter profile at the time. I much rather address such concerns in an email as asking questions via Twitter can sometimes initiate an unintentional “pile on”.

I’d be interested in taking a look at the source of your claim for this statement if you would be so kind as to forward it to me?  

“12 to 15-year-olds – [are] one of the age groups most responsible for spreading the virus.”

Thanks

Philip

Bodkin would respond to me by again referring to the BMJ article he had tweeted in response to me asking him for evidence of his claim previously.

Hello Philip,

The results of the trial of the Pfizer vaccine in younger teenagers has been published in a number of outlets I believe, but see here the write-up in the BMJ:https://www.bmj.com/content/373/bmj.n881

As this article doesn’t support Bodkin’s claim, I would email back seeking clarification:

Hi Henry, 

Thanks for the understanding. 

I read the BMJ article but it doesn’t refer to ’12-15 year olds being “one of the age groups most responsible for spreading the virus” ‘.

That’s quite a bold claim to make and if the data exists to support it, then it needs widely reported. Your article was the first time I came across that claim and I admit to being surprised when I read it. You’ve obviously found something I was unaware of and therefore I’d really like to drill down into the data somewhat as that could mean that the government has been lying to us about the safety of secondary schools being opened for that age-group.

Is it possible you could link me to the evidence you’re referencing that this group is a prime group for spreading the virus?

Thanks again.

Philip

I would receive no response to this email. So would resend it today with notification that I was writing an article on the subject and wanted to give Henry a right to reply.

Hello Henry, 

I am finalising an article and would like to give you another opportunity to clarify your evidence for the claim, 

“12 to 15-year-olds – [are] one of the age groups most responsible for spreading the virus.”

You initially linked me to the BMJ article which doesn’t evidence your claim. You then pointed me to the latest ONS Infection Survey which again doesn’t seem to evidence your claim. I am genuinely trying to verify your statement with honest intent. If what you say is true then it needs to reach a much larger audience. I spent several hours last night going through the ONS data and searching the internet attempting to find evidence that would support your claim, but could find none. 

Is it possible that you could even take a screenshot of the section of the ONS Infection Survey data that supports your statement so that I can help raise awareness of the matter?  Is it possible you may have misread the data?

Kind Regards, 

Philip Watson

Henry would respond a short while later providing details of the ONS data he was referring to whilst also claiming his linking to the BMJ article (twice) was in error.

Hello Philip,How lovely to hear from you again.I posted the BMJ article in error because I didn’t read question properly. That evidences the claim about efficacy.As I said, the latest ONS infection survey shows that children aged 12 to 15 are among the groups with higher infection rates.Click on this link, go to section 4 and look at the graphs: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/bulletins/coronaviruscovid19infectionsurveypilot/7may2021#age-analysis-of-the-number-of-people-who-had-covid-19

I followed the link and viewed the graphs referred to by Bodkin but again this was not evidence of his claim.

These graphs are denoting modelled estimates of infection rates in age groups, not the probability of each age group transmitting the virus! Even at that, the graph Bodkin was pointing to explicitly shows a step and continuous downward trend in the 12-15 cohort infection rates.

Still confused, but beginning to suspect that he was unable to evidence his claim, I would email him back:

Hi Henry, 

Thanks for the kind reception.

Just to be clear, a cohort having a ‘high infection rate’ is not the same thing as a cohort having a ‘high transmission rate’.  Infectivity does not equate to transmissibility. That said, I have analysed the dataset from the ONS survey and specifically the referred to graphs in your email and I find no evidence to support your claim.

Firstly, the graph in section 4 of the ONS paper for “School Years 7 to 11” shows a notable decline in infection rates from the beginning to April to the date reported. The paper draws attention to this decline – indeed it draws attention to the overall decline in school aged children:

“Figure 3: The percentage testing positive in England decreased in people aged two years to school Year 11 in the week ending 2 May 2021

However, that is an very different argument from claiming the graph shows that that cohort is “one of the age groups most responsible for spreading the virus”. 

Given that the graphs you linked to don’t support your claim, I must conclude at this stage that your statement in the Telegraph is incorrect and in the absence of evidence proving otherwise, it should be corrected. 

Kind Regards, 

Philip Watson

I felt that was a fair email and I believe that Bodkin had been given ample opportunity in our exchange to provide evidence for his claims. After several attempts, he failed to do so. He would conclude the email exchange suggesting that it was I that refused to see the evidence he was presenting,

Philip, I had a sneaking suspicion that nothing on earth would evidence the claim to your satisfaction.
Here ends our interaction.
Take care.

What would have evidenced the claim, Henry, would have been evidence of the claim. Something you didn’t supply at any time and something we were unable to find by doing our own internet searches.

It would seem that Henry intended to promote vaccinations in the 12-15 age group and in doing so opted to spread a false claim that will only serve to misinform and frighten the public even further. I believe, given my communications with him, his intent was deliberate therefore he was pushing disinformation which none of the “fact-checkers” picked up on or wished to pursue.

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