By David Tuller, DrPH
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In a remarkable display of—well, I’m not even sure what to call it–Professor Michael Sharpe has blamed Guardian columnist George Monbiot and Long COVID support groups, among others, for the wave of people reporting prolonged symptoms after acute bouts of COVID-19. And during the same February presentation in which he made those observations, Professor Sharpe warned viewers of “poor quality research” while still citing his beloved but discredited PACE trial as if it offered meaningful evidence. The event was an “Expert Forum on secondary COVID-19 impacts” organized by Swiss Re, a major reinsurance company.
Monbiot himself has experienced what he has referred to as a mild case of Long COVID. He has expressed empathy and support for those who have been whacked by this much, much worse than he has. And the situation has brought to his attention the years-long neglect of the ME/CFS patient community. Here’s part of what he wrote in January in a compelling column:
“In some cases, long COVID could mean lifelong COVID. The effects can be horrible. Among them are lung damage, heart damage and brain damage that can cause memory loss and brain fog, kidney damage, severe headaches, muscle and joint pain, loss of taste and smell, anxiety, depression and, above all, fatigue. We should all fear the lasting consequences of this pandemic.”
That passage apparently didn’t sit well with Professor Sharpe. In his presentation, he cited it—if I understand his argument–as the sort of thing likely to trigger other people into reporting exaggerated or imagined symptoms they insist are manifestations of Long COVID. This assertion is the same argument he and his comrades in the biopsychosocial ideological brigades have made for decades about the purportedly pernicious social influences that convince ME/CFS patients that they’re ME/CFS patients.
Here’s what seems to be Professor Sharpe’s basic point: We wouldn’t be hearing from all these anxiety-ridden, depressed, hysterical and deluded people (mostly women) if they weren’t being convinced that there’s a thing called Long COVID by patient disinformation and fearmongers like George Monbiot.
That’s the argument. That’s it. Really. Sharpe allowed in his presentation that some post-COVID patients might need medical investigation. But he also noted that seeking medical attention is a coping mechanism for the psychological distress that patients experience as physical symptoms. So he likes having it both ways.
For months, Professor Sharpe and his colleagues have been deploying the Long COVID phenomenon in a campaign to shore up their cherished but collapsing CBT/GET approach to ME/CFS and related conditions. Accompanying this campaign has been an effort to rehabilitate the credibility and authority of the PACE trial itself. In his presentation, Professor Sharpe included a slide of the purportedly positive results for the trial’s fatigue and physical function outcomes. In a Long COVID webinar sponsored by the Royal Society of Medicine in September, one panelist suggested that PACE merely suffered from poor public relations; he was of course overlooking the methodological and ethical lapses that likely qualify the study as an example of research misconduct, at least according to standard definitions.
And now the PACE rehabilitation project has jumped across the Atlantic onto The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page. Two weeks ago, the news organization published a piece that described both Long COVID and ME/CFS as manifestations of mental illness and linked to the PACE trial as representative of the “prevailing view” in the medical profession. Luckily, the case against PACE is well documented, so the notion of restoring it to its glory days is a non-starter. It is and will always be a piece of crap.
There’s a lot more nonsense from Professor Sharpe’s presentation. My friend and colleague Brian Hughes, a psychology professor at National University Ireland Galway, took aim at it earlier, so I’ll leave the rest to him. You can read his analysis here.