A statistics expert slammed the Trump administration's statements on the coronavirus as misleading, and accused him of downplaying the outbreak so he could get reelected

Associated PressPresident Donald Trump holds a paper about countries best and least prepared to deal with a pandemic at a press briefing at the White House on Wednesday.
  • Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security fumbled his figures on the coronavirus under a grilling from Sen. John Kennedy on Tuesday, comparing its mortality rate to that of the seasonal flu.
  • An expert on the misuse of statistics in public life told Business Insider Wolf’s characterization is completely wrong and risks misleading the American public.
  • Professor John Allen Paulos also accused Trump of downplaying the outbreak to protect his chances of reelection.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump’s acting secretary of the Department for Homeland Security stumbled over basic questions on how the administration is preparing for the novel coronavirus, incorrectly telling a Senate subcommittee Tuesday that the mortality rate of the new virus is similar to that of the seasonal influenza.

A leading mathematician and expert in the misuse of statistics in public life has told Business Insider that Chad Wolf’s figures are completely wrong.

Chad Wolf, acting secretary for Homeland Security, grilling coronavirusPBS News/TwitterChad Wolf, acting secretary for Homeland Security, being questioned by the Senate on February 25, 2020. He has been criticised for his misuse of data.

“The [mortality] rate for the seasonal flu virus varies, but it ranges between a tenth of a per cent, and maybe two-tenths of a per cent in really bad years,” said John Allen Paulos, a maths professor at Temple University.

Meanwhile, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, currently has a fatality rate of 3.4%. It was previously considered to have a fatality rate of 2%.

“So coronavirus is 20 times as lethal,” Paulos said, referring to the 2% figure.

The coronavirus has so far killed 2,800 people and infected more than 82,000. Most of the cases are in mainland China, where the virus first broke out.

Paulos also called Wolf’s characterization of the coronavirus “absurd” and “outrageous.”

“He’s the director of Homeland Security and he’s the one who presumably has something to say about the measures that will be taken here,” the maths professor told Business Insider.

Figures on the coronavirus and seasonal influenza also aren’t directly comparable, he said.

Seasonal flu kills “thousands of people a year,” but this is in part because it infects millions, Paulos told Business Insider.

By comparison, the infection rate of coronavirus is still being established. “It’s fairly clear that the majority of cases are mild and even asymptomatic,” he said, noting that these factors that make it even harder to compare to flu.

The fact that there are still so many unknowns about the novel coronavirus also means that making simplistic comparisons between this virus and other diseases is misleading, Paulos wrote in a New York Times op-ed earlier this month.

For instance, medical experts still aren’t sure of the length of the infection’s incubation period, and still exploring how the coronavirus can resurface in people after they have been declared recovered a first time.

Even establishing a fatality rate isn’t simple, Paulos said in The Times. As the disease primarily kills the elderly and people with preexisting health conditions, it’s not always easy to say if coronavirus is the sole cause of death.

Coronavirus china wuhan doctorsSTR/AFP via Getty ImagesA doctor examines a patient infected by the coronavirus at a hospital in Wuhan, China.

‘He’s very concerned about his reelection’

Paulos also slammed conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh for claiming that the coronavirus is just a “common cold” being “weaponised” to make Trump look bad.

But Wolf’s misleading people is even worse, he said.

“I mean, Rush Limbaugh’s a fringe figure – or hopefully he is – while the director of Homeland Security is certainly not,” Paulos told Business Insider.

He also warned against the Trump administration’s apparent complacency – as shown by Wolf’s Senate testimony and Trump’s previous claims the virus would be gone by April – and the general public’s simultaneous panic of the coronavirus, which has seen multiple US cities and counties declaring emergencies to free up funding in case the outbreak grows.

“I don’t think people should go into panic mode, but [I do think they should] take prudential moves,” he told Business Insider.

TrumpAP Photo/Evan VucciTrump with members of the his Coronavirus Task Force on Wednesday.

He did attack Trump’s response to the coronavirus, however, and accused the president of being concerned about the virus because it could cost him his reelection.

“He’s unprepared. I think he’s very upset that it’s affecting the stock market because he’s very concerned about his reelection,” Paulos said, referring to the massive downturn in financial markets because of the virus.

“And so because of that, he may be trying to minimise the virus.”

Trump is reportedly furious about the stock market downturn, and has blamed it on warnings from US officials about the virus’ spread.

How the president responds to the coronavirus could become the biggest test of his presidency, given his massive cuts to national public-health programs, and routine misrepresentation of empirical findings he doesn’t like, Business Insider’s Sonam Sheth reported.

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