Explainer: Five reasons why ZeroCOVID is the answer

Sam Wood
Picture by Adam Nieścioruk

There is still much debate as to what the right approach should be towards COVID-19, and the Prime Minister has just announced his plan to open up society in four steps until 21 June. Professor Martin Michaelis and Dr Mark Wass of the School of Biosciences explain why, if you systematically analyse what we know, ZeroCOVID is the answer:

‘As COVID-19 numbers are decreasing, the debate of when parts of society should open again is restarting. Looking at the evidence, one answer clearly stands out: ZeroCOVID.

‘ZeroCOVID is the aim to reduce COVID-19 numbers low enough for transmission to be sustainably controlled without the repetitive, sweeping and general lockdowns and measures such as endured in the UK. By aiming to reduce daily cases to fewer than 10 cases per million residents, COVID-19 can be controlled by isolating the symptomatic and using random testing to break transmission chains early.

‘Countries that have pursued ZeroCOVID as an objective have consequently applied strict border restrictions and lockdowns until such very low infection numbers were achieved. The evidence suggesting that all countries should follow a similar approach can be summarised in five points:

‘1. ZeroCOVID works.

Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, and China show it is possible to suppress domestic COVID-19 spread sustainably to very low levels.

‘2. ZeroCOVID gives us our freedoms back.

In all the countries that have taken an aggressive approach on COVID-19 suppression, the resulting low case numbers led to restrictions being largely and sustainably eased. Residents of these countries now enjoy a more normal life with far fewer restrictions than the UK.

‘3. ZeroCOVID protects lives.

If COVID-19 does not spread, people do not get sick and do not die. Taiwan (23.5 million) has reported nine COVID-19 deaths, Australia (25.7 million) has 909 deaths, South Korea (51.7 million) 1,514 deaths, Thailand (66.5 million) 80 deaths, New Zealand (5.1 million) 25 deaths, Vietnam (97.8 million) 35 deaths, Singapore (5.7 million) 29 deaths, and China (1.4 billion) 4,828 deaths. Compared to the UK (67.8 million residents, 116,287 deaths), this is even more impressive.

‘4. ZeroCOVID prevents the formation of new dangerous variants.

Currently, we see the emergence of many novel, potentially dangerous variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Such new variants are the consequence of random errors (“mutations”) when the virus infects individuals and replicates. If we prevent COVID-19 spread, we also prevent virus replication and the formation of novel variants.

‘5. ZeroCOVID protects the economy.

Since there have been fewer restrictions in countries that suppressed COVID-19 spread, the economy has suffered less. Long-term closures of non-essential shops and the hospitality sector are not necessary once COVID-19 numbers are under control. The Taiwanese economy has grown in 2020 and Australian domestic travel has largely compensated for the lack of overseas tourists.

‘If we want to find a way to live sustainably with COVID-19, preventing lockdowns and protecting lives and livelihoods, ZeroCOVID is the only answer that has shown to be effective and feasible according to all currently available evidence.

‘Although the Prime Minister mentioned that there will not be a “ZeroCOVID world”, the plans he announced are not that dissimilar from the ZeroCOVID approach. The removal of restrictions depends on:
1) the success of the vaccine rollout,
2) the number of hospital admissions and deaths falling,
3) the amount of pressure on the NHS,
4) the impact of any variants.

‘If no new variants emerge, the number of hospital admissions and deaths will reflect the number of COVID-19 infections. Hence, we will be heading towards low level COVID-19 spread that prevents further lockdowns, if everything works out as planned. However, opening society up before we have actually achieved very low levels remains a gamble and may result in longer restrictions than a more cautious approach.’

Professor Martin Michaelis and Dr Mark Wass

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.