Matt Hancock grilled by host on ‘second pandemic’ of long covid
Professor Mark Woolhouse, who sits on Spi-M – the modelling group that feeds into Sage – said while it was right to monitor new variants such as the Brazilian strain this need not slow the process of lifting restrictions. Some scientists have warned that new variants could delay the return to normality, with a possibility of the nation going “backwards” on the roadmap out of the pandemic. And Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said lockdown lifting will be judged on a series of factors including the threat posed by new variants.
But, speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Woolhouse said he considered lockdowns to be a “failure of policy”, and said that the current data suggested restrictions could be loosened earlier.
He said that despite data suggesting the P1 or “Brazil” variant might evade the immune system leading to reinfection, the evidence was not strong enough to delay opening up.
Prof Woolhouse, an expert in infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, said: “We are getting an extraordinarily detailed view of these viruses thanks to our genomic sequencing, but we are focusing too much on it, as opposed to the immediate practical challenges of rolling out a vaccination program and opening up society.
“If holding back and being cautious didn’t come with costs there would be no debate.
“But every lockdown is damaging, and this lockdown is perhaps the most damaging. It is important to get us out of it as quickly as possible.
“I am uncomfortable with holding back because of theoretical concerns about the virus.”
Some scientists have warned that new variants could delay the return to normality
It has been suggested that suppressing the virus would limit its chances of mutating and keep new strains to a minimum. However other experts have argued that lockdown and social distancing measures themselves may put selection pressures on the coronavirus giving mutations an exaggerated advantage as they evolve to deal with a potential threat to its existence.
Prof Woolhouse argued: “Right now our understanding of the evolution of this virus is still developing. Of course, it is right to be concerned.
“The point of contention is whether the emergence of new variants should mean we suppress the virus to stop generating more variants, as the government has suggested.
“My view is that we simply don’t have the level of biological understanding to make that link.
“It is not a simple relationship between numbers of cases and mutations. This virus is a kaleidoscope, constantly tweaking amino acids, especially on the spike protein surface.
“That is the biology of this virus.
Mark Woolhouse says the detection of new strains need not slow the process of lifting restrictions
“Whatever we do variants will appear, and too simplistic to say if we take course of action A, B or C – such as suppressing the virus – then the virus will evolve in a way we prefer.
“I am not sure we can manipulate the evolution of a virus by a proactive approach – we have never tried this before.
He welcomed the fact that the UK had an advanced sequencing programme to help identify new mutations but said this did not mean we could predictably interfere with their spread and changing nature. He said: “Of course we need to monitor what it is doing but I’m sceptical we can manage its evolution.
“If we didn’t have all this sequencing capacity we would simply manage the current vaccine rollout and the current epidemic as we have all others. We have never before taken special measures to protect a vaccine rollout – we just got on with it.”
He said the infection rate was low, the vaccine rollout had been more successful than some of the more pessimistic forecasts and that our exit from lockdown should reflect this than fixed dates given by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on February 22.
He said that “all of the data we now have is on the positive end of the spectrum, and updated model projections should reflect that”.
Prof Woolhouse said he considered lockdowns to be a ‘failure of policy’
“The empirical data is positive, making it possible now to accelerate the unlocking program. That is real data – that is real evidence,” he said. “The rationale for keeping schools closed has gone and there was never a need to stop people going outside other than an over-abundance of caution. We should not still be doing this now, a year into the epidemic.”
He said he believed that going into lockdown would come to be seen as an error.
“I hope we never go down the lockdown route again, and when we look back on this more calmly, we will realise it was a massive mistake”, he said.
“If we saw lockdown as a failure of policy in the same way as we see overwhelming the NHS as a failure of policy, we would be forced to find the middle ground.
“We would focus on that and not accept lockdown as easily as we have done.
“Lockdown is a lazy way of dealing with the pandemic – all it requires is a government edict and a modicum of enforcement.
Matt Hancock says the lifting of lockdown will be judged on different factors including new strains
“If you want to control the virus in other ways you have to properly invest and put effort into the public health response, proper testing and surveillance – even more than we have done so far.”
Professor David Paton from the University of Nottingham an expert in health economics said: “Data from across the world shows us that infection rates can rise and fall regardless of government interventions. We can artificially suppress the virus for a bit, but it just comes back and the government has overestimated the amount they can control this virus with restrictions and legally enforceable stay at home orders.”
The government has made the risk from new variants one of its four tests for easing the lockdown
Six cases of a Brazilian had been identified in the UK. One of these cases was initially unknown and was last week tracked down in Croydon where surge testing was deployed to check for further cases.
Scientific modelling had suggested the Brazilian variant was twice as transmissible as other strains and more likely to evade the natural immunity conferred by prior infection. A study from Oxford University, Imperial College London and the University of Sao Paulo led researchers to warn this could be a sign the current vaccines could be less effective against it.
However other scientists say these models – mainly based on laboratory work – are unreliable because they do not account for longer term T-cell memories of infections nor environmental selection pressures that cause some variants to thrive over others which are different between populations and countries.
Yesterday, Professor Sharon Peacock, head of the Covid-19 Genomics UK scientific body, said new vairants were “very unlikely” to stop restrictions being lifted.
Prof Peacock said: “I’m very optimistic that the vaccines will be rolled out, that they’ll be effective, and that we’ll be in a better place by the summer and autumn.
“I think we’ve got the capabilities to stay ahead by adapting vaccines, and so I’m an optimist.”