Coronavirus: we must be prepared for ineffective vaccine or stronger virus

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - People have to be prepared for the coronavirus to mutate into a more virulent strain or for the possibility that new vaccines will prove ineffective, a leading former World Health Organisation scientist has said.

The only way the world can combat the virus effectively is through stringent track-and-trace measures that will lead to multiple local lockdowns, said Professor David Heymann in an interview with The National.

He said that as an RNA virus, Covid-19 could change and become deadlier. “These viruses are not stable and might mutate in such a way to become less severe or more severe, or more transferable. It’s very difficult to say.”

Mr Heymann is one of the world’s most experienced infectious disease specialists having dealt with the early Ebola outbreaks in Africa during the 1970s and Sars in 2003 with the WHO. He is currently a distinguished fellow in Global Health Programme at the Chatham House think tank.

While hopes remain high for a vaccine in the coming months, Mr Heymann said people had to be prepared that it might not be ready for a year or be 100 per cent effective.

“It’s not a done job when a vaccine is licensed, that’s just the beginning. We won’t know how long immunity lasts – it might just be six months. It also depends on how many booster doses need to be given," he told The National. “We don’t even know if it will be effective in the short term and we don’t know when it will be ready. Most people think the middle of next year.”

With many European countries now adopting localised lockdowns – Britain in recent weeks has shut down Manchester, Preston, Leicester and Aberdeen – Mr Heymann believes this will be the template for containing Covid-19. “It’s about finding where a transmission is occurring and it’s about interrupting that transmission from the source. Once Covid is interrupted you can open up again.”

With more than 20 million people infected during the pandemic and substantial rises in Africa and the American continents, he believes Covid-19 is continuing to spread in a westward direction from China. But he added that the mortality rate was still significantly lower than many other diseases.

Mr Heymann, the former head of the WHO’s Emerging and Communicable Diseases Cluster, believed the death rate in the Middle East was low because sensible precautions had been taken to protect the elderly.

He added that cancelling or substantially cutting down the Hajj pilgrimage in Makkah was effective in stopping the spread. “The Middle East has always been very careful in taking precautions after the cholera and meningitis outbreaks in places like Makkah during the Eighties.”

The American-born medic, 73, who had travelled from London to Zurich before the interview, believed that planes were a safe way to travel.

“There’s been no real transmission on an airplane that’s been documented. They are safe forms of transport. People are not face to face as they are in pubs where laughing and chatting transmits droplets. Also, the circulated air is filtered and replaced every two or three minutes in an aircraft and if masks are worn this will further prevent transmission.”

The high US infection rate, where more than five million people have contracted Covid-19, has in part been caused by President Donald ignoring the advice of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, with which Mr Heymann worked for 13 years as a medical epidemiologist in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Right now America’s head of state is challenging everyone else and he got rid of the CDC early saying, ‘We don’t listen to them.’”

The best way to combat the coronavirus for now was for people to make sensible risk assessments and take personal hygiene seriously. “We just don’t know what the destiny of this virus is,” he added.

A child puts on his protective face mask as he arrives for the first day of classes of the new school year at the GuthsMuths elementary school in Berlin, Germany. Getty Images

Thai students wear face masks and sit at desks with plastic screens used for social distancing at the Wat Khlong Toey School in Bangkok, Thailand. Getty Images

A woman takes part in the ceremony of delivery of a dress for the Virgin of the Assumption during the Catholic celebration of San Sebastian Mestizos Guild in Merida, Yucatan State, Mexico. AFP

Customers buy vegetables at a market in Shenyang, in China's northeastern Liaoning province. AFP

Commuters keep social distancing inside an underground train in Copenhagen, Denmark. EPA

Philippine Army soldiers give directions to a motorcycle rider intending to cross a quarantine checkpoint on the boundary of Bulacan province and Caloocan City, Metro Manila, Philippines. EPA

A ball boy disinfects a ball during a Uruguayan tournament football match between Nacional and Penarol at the Centenario stadium in Montevideo. AFP

A woman visits a botanical garden in Tokyo, Japan. AP Photo

People ride the wooden roller coaster at Playland amusement park at the Pacific National Exhibition, in Vancouver, Canada. The Canadian Press via AP

A child looks out of a car window as Flamengo's soccer fans watch the Brasileiro Championship match between Flamengo and Atletico Mineiro from cars during a drive-in show, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Reuters

An employee of Pyongyang Glasses Shop takes the temperature of customers as quarantine measures of the Covid-19 coronavirus infection. KCNA / AFP

A funeral employee disinfects the home of a Covid-19 victim as relatives mourn outside, before taking the casket to the local cemetery for burial in the remote Aymara highland village of Acora, in Peru. AFP

Health officials gather samples taken from people during the Covid-19 testing at a makeshift clinic in Seoul, South Korea. AP Photo

A health worker collects a swab from a resident at a makeshift free Covid-19 coronavirus testing booth in Hyderabad, India. AFP

Updated: August 10, 2020 06:17 PM

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