Vaccine and testing can end Covid says top health expert
Prof Hugh Pennington said it would be “an admission of failure” to assume the virus was here to stay.
His optimistic assessment came as it was revealed that a vaccine being worked on by Oxford scientists built a strong immunity to the disease.
Despite impressive progress in the hunt for a treatment, some experts have issued gloomy predictions that Covid-19 will become endemic in the UK and we must learn to live with it.
But Prof Pennington who is emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said that getting rid of Covid-19 should still be the goal.
He said: “We should be aiming to do what they’ve done in China and in New Zealand, which is to eradicate the virus, like we did with smallpox and SARS.
“I see no reason why we shouldn’t have that as our aim and the vaccine will play a key role in that. But you’ve got to have very good contact tracing and testing because, unlike smallpox, this virus doesn’t cause spots. You can’t tell by asking somebody whether they’ve got it.
“When that will be I don’t know, but I think we could get the virus numbers down to such a low level that we can see the end of it and eliminate it altogether.”
He added that comparisons with flu were not appropriate, saying: “We can’t eradicate flu. With flu, one strain comes and knocks out a previous one.
Prof Hugh Pennington is emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University
“Flu is quite a different virus, has different effects. This virus is more like SARS, which we did get rid of permanently.”
The microbiologist said the Government must improve the system of testing and tracing, which could be better at controlling transmission than lockdowns.
People must be willing to selfisolate for a fortnight when asked to, if the system is to work, he said. “Right through the whole epidemic in the UK we’ve been too slow at doing testing and turnaround times. Unless we get that sorted out, we’re going to have to live with the bloody thing for longer than otherwise.”
When it came to vaccines, Prof Pennington said it was too early to say which will be effective – but results from some phase three trials should emerge this year.
He said: “There are so many in trials and, so far, none of them have stumbled in any big way, so it’s reasonable to suppose the majority will end up providing a degree of protection.
“I think it’s wise at this stage to be optimistic that there will be a vaccine or a series of vaccines and they will work – but how well they will work is the big question.
“The one thing you really want to stop is people having to go into intensive care.”
When it came to vaccines, Prof Pennington said it was too early to say which will be effective
Prof Pennington said a vaccination programme could begin in early spring. Meanwhile, analysis at the University of Bristol confirmed that the Oxford vaccine was performing exactly as researchers hoped it would .
Scientists found that genetic instructions delivered by the jab were accurately copied thousands of times, showing cells how to make the spike protein on the surface.
This should teach the immune system to recognise and fight the killer bug, generating immunity.
Researcher Dr David Matthews is from Bristol’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.
He said: “Until now, the technology hasn’t been able to provide answers with such clarity, but we now know the vaccine is doing everything we expected.”
Oxford University and Astra- Zeneca are running phase three trials which will reveal whether the frontrunner jab can prevent infection or reduce the severity of the disease.
Meanwhile, yesterday’s daily data revealed there were 20,530 newly confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK and 224 deaths.
Separate figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed the number of daily infections in England had doubled in a fortnight, but there were signs the rate was slowing.
The ONS estimated there were around 35,200 new cases per day in the community in the week to October 16. This is up 26 per cent from 27,900 in the week to October 8 and just over double the 17,200 to October 1.
Prof James Naismith, from the University of Oxford, said: “This is a hopeful sign that the rate of increase is slowing down.” The estimated reproduction rate, or R value, also dropped to 1.2-1.4, down from 1.3-1.5 last week.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said there was still “widespread growth of the epidemic”.
Separate ONS data showed the Covid death rate had increased in
England for the first time since the peak of the outbreak in April. The mortality rate in September was 12.6 per 100,000 people, up from 7.2 in August. This was still significantly lower than the peak in April when it was 623.2.
Coronavirus did not feature in the 10 leading causes of death in September, ranking 19th in England and 24th in Wales.
The leading cause was dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, accounting for 11 per cent of deaths in England. Heart disease and lung cancer were” t.