By William J. Furney
The latest in a family of coronaviruses to afflict humankind has plunged the world into deep crisis and lingering uncertainty of a kind not seen in over a century, since the 1918 pandemic known as the Spanish Flu infected 500 million people worldwide and killed at least 50 million; this new variation is also ravaging populations in almost every country on the planet. From the time it appeared in late 2019 in China, the microorganism that we now either call novel coronavirus, COVID-19 or even SARS-CoV-2 has slain close to quarter of a million people around the world and infected over 3.3 million.
Badly hit countries like Italy and Spain are starting to see their numbers fall; and, as a result, they are beginning to lift draconian lockdowns that have kept people confined to their homes for months. Meanwhile, deaths remain high in Britain, which looks set to overtake Italy as the worst-affected country in Europe, and the United States, which has the highest number of infections and deaths in the world, at over 1.5 million and more than 65,000, respectively.
No one is yet sure, however, where — and when — it will all end. To get an idea, I asked Peter Lane, professor of immunology at the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom, this week to give me his views on the rolling global pandemic.
Where do you think the world is at right now in terms of the novel coronavirus and its impact?
Well, it’s obviously having a huge impact, both economically, socially and medically. In theory, a vaccine could change things but currently that’s not certain. Although not clear, there is some evidence, both with related corona viruses and other respiratory viruses, that there is a chance it will make things worse, but a vaccine is still the best chance out of this nightmare.
How long, realistically, do you think it will be before a vaccine is developed and available to everyone? Who do you think is best placed to develop such a vaccine?
There are a number of groups with academia and industry links in the UK but also USA, and other countries are developing various types of vaccines that target the spike protein of COVID-19, in the hope of generating neutralising antibodies.
In the UK, the Oxford study has already vaccinated volunteers in a controlled trial. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that in some situations, sub-optimal responses to other respiratory vaccines have made disease more severe rather than prevented disease. We will see.
Whatever, it’s going to take much longer to scale-up production of the vaccine, even if it’s shown to work in trials.
Do you think criticism of the World Health Organisation’s initial response to the outbreak is warranted?
No. I think it’s part of the defect-blame strategy.
What, in your view, is the best thing that people can do to protect themselves from infection?
Unfortunately, self-isolation is the best way to contain the spread of the virus.
Is public travel, whether on a bus, train or plane, a bad idea for the foreseeable future, due to the enclosed spaces?
Unfortunately, yes, as this is the best approach to containment. I’m not really an expert on this, but travel on crowded underground trains in London, I believe, was a significant factor in the spread of COVID-19 in London. Until there is widespread testing for the virus, I think there will be restricted travel, unfortunately.
Turning to the lockdowns that are in place around the world, do you think they’re working, in helping to limit infection, and do you worry that they might be impinging on civil liberties and freedoms? Business magnate Elon Musk said this week, for example, that a situation in which people are arrested if they don’t stay at home “is fascist … not democratic … not freedom”. And a British businessman is threatening to sue the government over the UK lockdown.
Lockdown is working, but there is a huge cost. However, if you look at other pandemics in history, those that locked-down did better in the long run in terms of economic recovery.
Britain is on track to be the worst coronavirus-affected country in Europe, and the United States is in the world. What does this say about so-called advanced preparations and healthcare in the Western world, when most Asian countries have, so far, escaped largely unscathed?
The UK was slow to respond but, as stated in the news media in the UK, it’s hard to compare different countries.
Is it possible that people who have recovered from this virus have immunity, and how long do you think it might be for?
That’s unknown. Let’s hope so, but for other coronaviruses, immunity can be short-lived.
Is it also possible that people who have recovered from coronavirus could quickly become re-infected?
Again, it’s unknown. So far, I don’t think there’s definitive evidence that COVID-19 can reinfect and spread further disease.
What about a second wave of COVID-19 infections around the world that many countries are worried about? Is it a realistic prospect?
From what the science says, this is inevitable, but at least countries should be better prepared to deal with it.
We’ve all heard about “herd immunity” — having as many people as possible immune from this current strain of novel coronavirus. How long do you think that will take to achieve, and is it possible that this virus will be around for “a significant amount of time,” as England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, warned this week?
Herd immunity depends on the spread of infection in individuals that are not susceptible to lethal disease, so in that sense, lockdown will delay that. Unfortunately, COVID-19 may be around for a long time.
What about mutations with this current form of the virus? Do we have any idea what might happen?
The model with flu is that mutations arise and cause new problems. We don’t know whether COVID-19 will be the same, but it’s certainly possible.
How long do you think it will take the world to recover from COVID-19, in terms of collective health?
I’ve no idea really, but hopefully not into 2021 — but I honestly don’t know.
Many countries are talking about a “new normal”, once lockdowns are over and this crisis comes to an end. What do you think it might look like?
I’m not sure, but hopefully it will be better than the gloomy predictions.
Do you agree with reports and studies that show the novel coronavirus came from bats and possibly via an intermediary like pangolins?
Yes. I think the bat theory is most likely, but I’m not sure about pangolins being an intermediary.
Do you think it’s reasonable that the world should expect an investigation into where and how COVID-19 came about, in China, as some countries, like Australia, are demanding?
I think we all have to learn from this pandemic. History unfortunately repeats itself and in the past we didn’t learn from history.
Do you think China’s so-called wet markets are dangerous to human health, not just because of the oftentimes unsanitary conditions but also because of the variety of wild animals sold there for human consumption?
China have banned live markets, so they obviously think so.
What do you think the world can do to prevent another devastating pandemic of this kind?
I hope we will learn from this, but unfortunately history suggests we won’t learn from it. Let’s hope this is not the case.
- Title photograph is an undated image showing an intensive care unit at a hospital in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus outbreak began. (Photograph courtesy Chinatopix)