Explainer: What we need to do to avoid Covid-19 deaths and re-start the economy

Olivia Miller
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) : COVID-19 by Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM; CDC

In the face of increasing Covid-19 numbers, there is an intensive debate about the causes and what should be done. Professor Martin Michaelis and Dr Mark Wass of the School of Biosciences have explained why we are overcomplicating an actually simple problem and what we have to do to prevent deaths. They said:

‘Despite a recent lockdown and large parts of England put into tier 3 and now a stricter tier 4, Covid-19 numbers keep increasing, in particular in Kent and the South East. Hospitals are filling up and tens of thousands of further deaths seem inevitable. We are having complex discussions of where Covid-19 is spreading and why, but we forget the simplest thing: to act and stop the spread of the disease, to save lives.

‘We hope for nuanced measures that stop Covid-19 and do not affect us and ignore the overwhelming evidence that this does not work. Covid-19 spreads everywhere that people come together: in restaurants, pubs, universities, schools, shops, public transport, planes, sports events, social events, family gatherings, at home and at the workplace. If there is any setting, in which Covid-19 transmission has not yet been described, we will just have to wait until it also happens there.

‘The same applies to different regions. Recently, there was interest into the differences in Covid-19 case numbers in Hastings and Thanet. Although these are demographically similar coastal areas in the South East, Thanet had much higher infection numbers. With hindsight, we can see now that these differences were only a snapshot and that the numbers have also dramatically increased in Hastings.

‘We make up complex reasons why we do not need to act, such as that restriction measures are inconsistent and unfair or that we should focus on protecting the most vulnerable. However, the truth is much simpler, the Covid-19 cases and deaths go up, and our measures are not working. Hence, we need to change our approach if we want to save lives. We have already had more than 76,000 deaths with Covid-19 on the death certificate, and further tens of thousands of deaths seem inevitable. Every day that we hesitate costs about 500 lives, and this is going to increase again.

‘If we want to live with Covid-19 without sacrificing hundreds or thousands of lives each day, we have to bring the infection numbers down, down to a very low level, so low that we can identify infected individuals and break the transmission chain by isolating them and their contacts. This is what successful countries including Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Vietnam have done and are still doing. Once the numbers are very low (below 1 new case/100,000 residents per day), we can ease restrictions for the majority of the population and also sustainably restart our economy without having to weigh up economy and lives.

‘How are we going to achieve this, while we are still waiting for vaccines and mass testing? We are probably at the brink of another lockdown anyway. However, lockdowns have only been temporary solutions so far. With the currently high number of infections, everybody who has any infectious diseases symptoms, not just the three official Covid-19 symptoms (continued cough, fever, loss/change of taste/ smell), and their contacts need to self-isolate. Covid-19 can probably cause everything from a runny nose to diarrhoea. Hence, every infection could be Covid-19, only a test will tell you whether it actually is. Probably even more importantly, the spread of any infectious disease tells us that our measures are not working. If common colds spread, Covid-19 spreads, too. If it does not spread in a certain community yet, it will be introduced sooner or later. Therefore, the only way to stop the spread of Covid-19 and to prevent Covid-19 deaths is to change our behaviour in a way that stops all infectious diseases that we are familiar with, particularly in the winter. If common colds spread, this is not good enough.’

Professor Michaelis and Dr Wass run a joint computational/ wet laboratory.  Dr Wass is a computational biologist with expertise in structural biology and big data analysis. Prof Michaelis’ research is focused on the identification and investigation of drugs and their mechanisms of action, with a focus on cancer and viruses. With regard to viruses, Prof Michaelis and Dr Wass work on virus-host cell interactions and antiviral drug targets. In the cancer field, they investigate drug resistance in cancer. In collaboration with Professor Jindrich Cinatl (Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main), they manage and develop the Resistant Cancer Cell Line (RCCL) Collection, a unique collection of 2,000 cancer cell lines with acquired resistance to anti-cancer drugs. They are also interested in meta-research that investigates research practices in the life sciences.

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