Thanks to the Microsoft founder’s support, the IHME can make its own rules about how to track global health. That’s a problem.
Aperennial feature of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the guessing game of whether things are getting better or worse—and how policy approaches (masks, shutdowns) and changes in the weather will affect the coronavirus. Dozens of research institutes have published educated guesses about what’s coming next, but none have had the impact or reach of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
In the early days of the pandemic, the IHME projected a far less severe outbreak than other models, which drew the attention of Donald Trump, who was eager to downplay the danger. At a March 31 press briefing, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, Debbie Birx, with the president at her side, used IHME charts to show that the pandemic was rapidly winding down.
““Throughout April, millions of Americans were falsely led to believe that the epidemic would be over by June because of IHME’s projections,” the data scientist Youyang Gu noted in his review of the institute’s work. “I think that a lot of states reopened based on their modeling.”
The IHME brushed aside the widespread criticism that emerged—“Many people do not understand how modeling works,” its director, Chris Murray, explained in a Los Angeles Times op-ed—and continued to push headline-grabbing projections that drew alarm from its peers. For example, while many researchers limit their projections to a few weeks into the future, Murray used his regular appearances on CNN to chart the course of the pandemic many months in advance, putting the IHME’s highly contested estimates in a position to guide policy-making ahead of other models.
“It seems to be a version of the playbook Trump follows,” says Sam Clark, a demographer at Ohio State University. “Absolutely nothing negative sticks, and the more exposure you get, the better, no matter what. It’s really stunning, and I don’t know any other scientific personality or organization that is able to pull it off quite like IHME.”
The institute’s uncanny resilience, unconventional methods, and media savvy have long made it controversial in the global health community, where scholars have watched its meteoric rise over the past decade with a mix of awe and concern. Years before Covid, the IHME gained outsize influence by tracking hundreds of diseases across the planet and producing some of the most cited studies in all of science.
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