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expert reaction to government’s first daily press conference on coronavirus

Reaction to government’s first daily press conference on coronavirus, with the Prime Minister, Chief Medical Officer for England, and government Chief Scientist.

 

Prof Jason Mercer, Professor of Virus Cell Biology, University of Birmingham, said:

“The path is clear, a proportion of the UK population will be infected by COVID-19. Echoing China and Italy the vast majority of people infected will present with no or mild symptoms and recover quickly. Others, largely people over 60 years of age or those harboring pre-existing medical conditions, may present with severe disease and suffer a high rate of mortality.

“In the past days the UK has seen a surge in COVID-19 infections moving into the hundreds per day, with a death toll of 35 as of March 16th. While the numbers are similar to other countries during early stages of the outbreak; one notable difference between the China and Italy epidemics versus the UK is the apparent lack of a major outbreak epicenter. Is this a blessing or a curse? Will the geographical distribution of UK infections flatten the infection curve? Will it contribute to slowing the spread of infection and thereby lower the regional burden on the health care system? Or will this merely result in multiple large outbreak epicenters?  

“Instead of waiting to find out, lessons learned in China and Italy suggest the time to act is now, before the curve goes exponential. Without a vaccine or effective antiviral agents, rigorous social distancing measures: such as self-quarantine (especially for Individuals in high-risk groups), cancelling public events, closing schools and work from home or paid leave programmes should be put in place. Additionally, widespread infection testing, beyond probable cases, should be implemented to assure accurate surveillance.

“While difficult to implement, these strategies have proven successful at slowing the spread of infection, not only with COVID-19 but with Smallpox and the 1918 influenza pandemic. Italy, Spain, France and Germany have already implemented these strategies and the UK should follow suit. This may give the UK the time needed to build population level immunity which will serve to shield the most vulnerable and decrease mortality rates. This will buy the precious time needed to fully understand the progression of the disease and develop much needed antiviral responses. In this age of social media, video conferencing and multiple alternatives means for non face-to-face communication this is a small price to pay in order to fulfil our social responsibility, flatten the curve and shut the door on COVID-19.”

 

Professor Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said:

“I very much welcome the new measures introduced by the Government, including social distancing, protection of the most vulnerable in society, and increased access to testing. The UK’s approach to tackling the spread of COVID-19 is solidly evidence-informed and strikes a sound balance between managing the current public health crisis as well as the multiple and complex societal implications. 

“The UK has some of the finest infectious disease experts and mathematical modellers in the world, and, in Chris Witty as Chief Medical Officer, we have the right person, in the right position at the right time, and I welcome his transparency and foresight.

“In this unprecedented pandemic, caused by a virus we still know so little about, there is no one size fits all approach to controlling it. We should be open to adapt the response to an ever changing epidemic, and to rapidly evolving scientific understanding.

“The next few months will be difficult for all us. It will mean lifestyle changes we could not conceive of just a few weeks ago. But everyone one of us must adhere to this new guidance if possible. We owe it to those most vulnerable to COVID-19, and to safeguard a fully functioning NHS , as the survival of many will depend on it and on properly protected staff.”

 

Professor Alan McNally, Professor in Microbial Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Birmingham, says:

“I think the thing that is troubling me is the suggestion that the science has shifted. It has not. The transmission dynamics and infectivity of the virus have not changed at all. What has changed is government advice based on the various evidence being presented to them. A huge number of scientists in the UK have been very vocal on the need for social distancing early in the outbreak. The trajectory of the epidemic has been very predictable if one pays attention  to the progression in China,  Italy, Iran, Spain. My belief has not changed in that we should have complete cessation of all public gatherings and social distancing. Positive patients should be isolated and there needs to be a sustained practice of testing, including priority testing for health care workers.”

 

Prof Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology, University of Nottingham, said:

“The announcements today and their impacts, both in terms of the public’s awareness of this pandemic and how people lead their daily lives, are seismic. Many scientists, me included have been clamoring for the government to impose more severe measures to slow the spread of the virus and the announcements today are welcome.

“Also important is the acknowledgement that far more widespread testing, especially in the community, are crucial to slow the virus down, and this will require innovative ways of acting, not least exploring means or expanding capacity outside the NHS and drawing on the wide ranging expertise up and down the country.

“The sharp rise in cases seems to have taken us by surprise, and we have to ask if there has been an over-reliance on one scientific discipline. Epidemiological modelling is really useful but is only as good as the scientific knowledge – the understanding of how the virus behaves – that underpins it. To get the best advice and strategy there has to be a scientific tension between the various disciplines, because without that tension the structure risks collapse.”

 

Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health, University of Southampton, said:

“The UK has significantly increased the social distancing measures. Policy has evolved to include significantly greater emphasis on isolation and protection of particularly vulnerable populations.

The modelling paper by Imperial College London has clearly informed the new measures from the Chief Medical Officer, and therefore it is excellent to have that data available to scrutinise. Professor Ferguson and colleagues clearly warn that the NHS will at some point likely be overwhelmed, and thus perhaps today’s announcements will hit home to the UK general population just how serious this pandemic is, and what will be required of them over the coming months. From that point of view, the transparency and openness of the Chief Medical Officer is very welcome.” Blog expanding on this here

 

Dr Doug Brown, Chief Executive of the British Society for Immunology, said:

“The British Society for Immunology welcomes today’s announcement from Government of a raft of measures aimed at slowing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus within our communities.  As well as protecting vulnerable individuals from becoming ill, these measures will buy vital time for our NHS to prepare and for researchers to find out more about how the virus interacts with the immune system and to start to develop therapeutics against the disease.  The emphasis that the Prime Minister put on the UK response being led by scientific evidence and consulting with experts is especially reassuring.

“The UK leads the world for the quality of our immunology research.  This is an unprecedented situation where we all need to pull together, and our community of immunology researchers stand ready to play their part in dealing with this global health threat.”

 

Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said:

“The Government’s announcement of further increased restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus is very welcome. Compliance with the new guidelines, and those previously announced, is essential to slow the rate of infection so as not to overburden health services beyond capacity. We anticipate that the Government may bring additional restrictions soon, as needed, based on its well-established systems for gathering and analysing scientific information on this rapidly changing situation in the UK.

“We also welcome the decision by the government to publish the evidence including data, modelling and reasoning, behind their strategy. This will help maintain public trust in the Government’s strategy and allow relevant experts in the broader scientific community to scrutinise the results and strategy and offer constructive feedback.

“While the Coronavirus (Covid-19) response must be led by the evidence, it is important to recognise that this is a new health threat and as new evidence becomes available it will be reflected in the evolution of the Government’s response.”

 

Dr Zania Stamataki, Viral Immunologist, University of Birmingham

“The government is adopting a measured but serious approach to set the tone for the coming weeks: they have taken advice from experts and escalated the isolation recommendations to 14 days for symptomatic people and their families. The recommendation to work from home when possible even if healthy, liberates workers and businesses to act early for the safety of all.

“The government advise strongly to end unnecessary travel and social gatherings and they have taken this a step further: they recommended sensible shopping strategies to avoid transmission and to help each other in this difficult time. The message: we are in this together, help those that are unable to shop for themselves or are at risk when out.

“The tone from the message was clear, we are taking this crisis seriously and as a liberal democracy we trust the public to follow sensible guidelines. We are in this for the long-haul.

“Many parents are struggling to reconcile the postponement of school closures with the government recommendations to minimise travel and work from home if possible. The prime minister has not ruled out school closures, but for many reasons, this measure is reserved for later stages in the outbreak. Children are not in danger from serious health complications in this infection.

“The government recommendations will have profound implications for people’s lifestyles. Travel and shopping restrictions and working from home recommendations will affect the majority of the UK population. The government has the power to enforce restrictions, but they trust citizens to make sensible decisions. This is a serious but measured response for this stage of the epidemic.”

 

Professor Alan McNally, Professor in Microbial Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Birmingham, says:

“I think the government have taken a step in the direction that is needed. There is no point in debating potential time lost and so on. It is clear that social distancing needs to be happening now and today’s statements begin that process. There will be debate about the extent to which it has been introduced with most of the rhetoric around voluntary exclusion from pubs etc. 

“Just as important were the comments on testing. It was encouraging to hear the CMO talk about three levels of testing including at GP surgeries. He is right we need a serological test ASAP to tell us how many people have truly been infected. But we also need near patient rapid testing for active infection for all persons showing respiratory symptoms. This is an enormous task but can be achieved by mobilising academic laboratories alongside public health and hospital laboratories especially if we want to determine scale of transmission and infection in the community.”

 

Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said:

“I applaud the Government’s approach of putting advice and evidence from world leading experts front and centre of their plans to deal with the global COVID-19 emergency.

“Today’s announcements are an example of this. Any action we take must be specific to the precise stage of the epidemic we are in. The actions taken in the UK so far have put us slightly ahead of some other countries when they were at a same stage of the epidemic. As the situation in the UK progresses, it is right that we are now moving into a phase of increased social distancing and I am glad to see a drive towards greater testing capacity, and isolating households with confirmed cases. It is most important that we take care of vulnerable people including those over the age of 70 at this time, protecting them as best we can from the virus while also acknowledging that the measures being introduced will cause difficulty.

“I welcome the commitment to daily briefings with the Prime Minister, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Advisor. It is important to recognise that this is a rapidly changing situation, the knowledge and understanding we are gaining from research and events worldwide is evolving daily. In light of this it is vital there is transparency about what we know and what we don’t, coupled with regular open communications about what the evidence is and how it is being used.

“Uncertainty is inevitable in the coming months: it is amazing how much we have learnt already about a virus that emerged just a few months ago. Science thrives on debate and it is often the interaction of conflicting views and challenge that drives progress. However in an epidemic situation, like the one we are facing, people want certainty and firm reassurance. Trustworthy advice, from credible experts can quickly be politicised. Scientists bear a strong responsibility here and must work to ensure the public have access to the latest reliable evidence whilst at the same time maintaining awareness of its impact in the ongoing broader societal debate.”

 

Professor Dame Anne Johnson FMedSci, Vice President International at the Academy of Medical Sciences, said:

“I am pleased to see a desire to increase testing. Identifying people who are infected and ill, isolating them and their households until they are better, will reduce the risk of passing the infection to others. This is an essential step to spread the peak of the epidemic over a longer period of time and in turn reduce pressure on the health and social care system so that we can look after the most vulnerable in society.

“We have world leading scientists in the UK who are accessing data and models in real time to provide the most up to date advice. This is a collective effort, and we all need to play our part, government, scientists, the health service and the public if we are to minimise the impact of this epidemic.”

 

Professor Mark Woolhouse OBE FRSE FMedSci, University of Edinburgh, said:

“The actions announced today by the UK government remain consistent with the scientific evidence available and are to be welcomed. These are the right actions, at the right time, for the right reasons. As was made clear, as the COVID-19 epidemic develops then further measures may be needed. A key point is that there is now a real possibility that this will be a prolonged event, so the response needs to be sustainable; the measures we introduce must be ones that we can maintain for some time.”

 

All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink: www.sciencemediacentre.org/tag/covid-19

 

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