SA’s only Nobel laureate scientist calls closure ‘huge mistake’

On Friday 27 March 2020, South Africans awoke to an eerie silence that marked the country’s first day of lockdown: the first of nearly 800 days of various stages of lockdown. From the beginning, various groups and individuals boldly spoke out against this unprecedented measure, at the risk of their own reputations. One of these individuals was Professor Michael Levitt, South Africa’s only Nobel Prize winning scientist. This article, first published on in May 2020, noted that Levitt believed his view on a shutdown would be supported by hindsight at a future stage. As it turns out, it is unmistakable. – Nadya Swart

SA’s only Nobel laureate scientist calls closure ‘huge mistake’

South Africa can fairly optimistically claim only one Nobel Prize-winning scientist, 73-year-old Stanford University professor Michael Levitt. The Pretoria-born scholar, whose family moved to England when he was 15, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2013. Levitt currently heads Stanford’s Medicine’s Department of Structural Biology, a world leader in the molecular and structural understanding of biology. He is also obsessed with Covid-19 and since his January 28th Levitt Lab group “have worked tirelessly on data analysis of Covid-19”.

Professor Levitt, who still has a distinct South African accent, is the type of internationally respected brain SA President Cyril Ramaphosa should surely call upon in these times of crisis and difficult decisions. Hopefully he will soon, because it would help the politician get over the increasingly obvious realities: first, clear evidence that the world overreacted to Covid-19 based on inflated initial data; and second, that an economically destructive shutdown of the type SA continues to implement is proving to be the worst option.

Talked to by Freddie Sayers on last Saturday, the Nobel laureate described the lockdown as a “big mistake” and says that if the world had paid closer attention to how China handled the threat of Covid-19, governments elsewhere would have reacted very differently. Instead of shutting down the economy, the approach would be: “If we were to do it all over again, we would require face masks, hand sanitizer, and some form of contactless payment system (i.e. phone, not credit card) — and isolate only the elderly.

Professor Levitt believes that in retrospect, Germany and Sweden will be recognized as the world’s big winners because “they didn’t practice too much lockdown – just enough people got sick to get herd immunity.” Where countries like Austria, Australia and Israel will lose a lot because they put on very strict closures before there were many cases of infection, which caused a lot of social damage without establishing any herd immunity. The first group of countries, he believes, will be protected against subsequent coronaviruses. The second group does not. He didn’t mention his former homeland, but it’s easy to see where we belonged.

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SA’s only Nobel laureate scientist calls closure ‘huge mistake’

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