Covid-19 Watch: Taking Stock

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

The rules in the UK were confused. Then on Monday Prime Minister Boris Johnson took the opportunity to clarify and strengthen them. I am still, and now even more, confused. I feared the situation regarding restaurants might change, so we went for dinner on Saturday at Stower Grange. If you are in, or need to be in, Norwich check it out. In fact the situation is that we can still go out for dinner. This may change with the introduction of a ‘circuit breaker’.

On Monday the South African newspaper Maverick Citizen carried an opinion-editorial piece by Nina Overton-de Klerk and Caroline Azionya: “The world is drowning in Covid-19 communication but isn’t much smarter for it”.1 The authors point out in 1968 a pandemic

“caused by an influenza A (H3N2) virus … (was) first noted in the United States … The estimated number of deaths was 1 million worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States. Most excess deaths were in people 65 years and older”.2

They report a (recent)

“WhatsApp message did the rounds with a picture of a rock guitarist playing to thousands of waving people. It read: “In 1969 the Hong Kong virus (H3N2) killed over one million people worldwide and over 100,000 Americans. Instead of shutting everything down and ruining people’s lives, they held Woodstock.””3

This deserves thinking about.

Vaccines probably offer us the only way out of this crisis. This week’s guest section is by Mitchell Warren, the Executive Director of AVAC. This is a non-profit organization that seeks to accelerate ethical development and global delivery of HIV prevention options. He became a friend, and a fellow traveller in search of global development and truth, more years ago than I care to recall in Durban. Mitchell tackles vaccines and his measured informative input is well worth reading.

Numbers

The cumulative case data from the Johns Hopkins4 website show that in the ‘millionaires’ category the USA is still highest, at nearly eight million cases; followed closely by India, at about 7.2 million, (it is almost certain to overtake the States in the next week); Brazil at 5.1 million; then Russia at 1.3 million. All other countries currently have fewer than a million cases. The highest global total was on 24 September at 361,019 and this has not been exceeded. There is hope that the number of new daily cases will not rise further, but the geographical distribution will change.

The data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre shows South Africa ranks 10th in the world with close to 700,000 cases, followed by the UK at 640,000. I am going to recommend a new data source this week. I urge people to explore Our World In Data’s Coronavirus Pandemic page,5

“Our World in Data and the SDG-Tracker are collaborative efforts between researchers at the University of Oxford, who are the scientific editors of the website content; and the non-profit organization Global Change Data Lab, who publishes and maintains the website and the data tools that make our work possible. At the University of Oxford we are based at the Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development.”6

The site has a vast amount of data. It is both easy to access and manipulate and it allows comparisons to be made between countries.

Data use and misuse

There is no doubt that the battle against Covid is the greatest challenge humankind faces. Many responses have been far sighted, appropriate and kind. However, there are also too many instances of misuse of data. The Daily Maverick describes Covid as: “The perfect recipe for the perfect storm, in which four things collided”:

  • ‘A society obsessed with social media, networking and AI’, where cyber networks are accessible and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter exert great influence.
  • ‘A society afraid of dying and obsessed with living forever’.
  • ‘A society obsessed with political correctness, ‘triggers’ and a ‘cancellation culture’. Being woke, ‘normalising’ and hashtag activism are the order of the day’.
  • ‘A society where governments have become hugely concerned about losing control and people have lost faith in political leadership’. Governments are simply not believed.7

Covid-19 is

“a single cataclysmic force … governments clamp down, using the opportunity to reassert power and take back control via structures such as ‘command councils’ … Covid-19 communication has gone viral to an extent wholly unprecedented in mankind’s history, in the process becoming more contagious than the virus itself. Covid-19 has become an infodemic.”8

Evidence suggests propaganda works best with authoritative and credible communication; fearful and ill-informed audiences; a repeated one-sided message, mixing rational and socio-emotional appeal; and repetition in media, including social media.9 We must read carefully and try to understand and interpret data.

One example I have become aware of is ‘The Great Barrington Declaration’. It is purported to have been signed by thousands of respectable scientists (although by whom is not clear). The website says,

“The Great Barrington Declaration – As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call Focused Protection”.10

They note damage caused by lock-downs and argue keeping them in place

“until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed … (we should) minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity”.11

This argument had some appeal at the beginning of the pandemic. This particular declaration is discredited by both the logic and the source. The original, private, meeting was hosted at the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), a libertarian free-market think-tank (also known for climate change denial) in Great Barrington. Nefeez Ahmed, a journalist writing in Byline Times, an outlet with the strapline ‘What the Papers Don’t Say’ says,

“The Declaration itself – which calls for only the elderly and vulnerable to be quarantined while encouraging young people to contract the virus – was signed by an initial batch of some 35 scientists”.12

Reading the declaration I don’t find any encouragement for the young to actually catch the virus, rather a suggestion that they should “be allowed to resume life as normal”.13 Effectively it is a call to return to the concept of herd immunity. But we neither know what herd immunity looks like, nor when it will be achieved. The apparent speed with which Donald Trump recovered, linked with these arguments, and activities of the right wing in the USA, does not bode well.

What is happening with Covid-19 is a reminder of AIDS dissidents of 2000. They could be divided into ‘the crazies,’ of whom no more needs to be said; the ‘bewildered and naïve’, some were open to evidence, but all had dubious motives for their denialism; and finally there were ‘the dangerous’. These last were those who came with their own agendas, often driven by a combination of distorted Darwinism, survivalism, and conspiracy. Of course, there must be debate, science must be examined, and hypotheses tested. My advice to readers of my work is ignore anything from the AIER.


Go As Fast As You Can – But Always Follow the Science

Science, not politics, must lead to COVID vaccine approvals and delivery
By Mitchell Warren14

COVID-19 has devastated communities and health systems around the world – but has created an historic global effort, leading to the unprecedented development of more than 165 potential vaccines against COVID-19. Equally impressive innovations are speeding vaccine testing within a rigorous scientific framework. Manufacturing and transportation capacity are being scaled up to distribute millions of doses of future COVID vaccines to those who need them most.

But developing COVID-19 vaccines at “pandemic speed” depends both on an unprecedented global research effort, and on innovative strategies to shorten the vaccine testing and distribution timeline. Each strategy should be weighed against relative risks and benefits, along with its potential to speed vaccine research. Speed is important, but not at the expense of ethics, safety, robust engagement, equitable access, and scientific rigor, including independent peer and regulatory review.

It seems every day brings an update – another vaccine enters into large-scale phase 3 trials; confusion about regulatory processes; concern about growing vaccine nationalism; and ever-present worry that politics will push researchers, developers, policy makers and regulators to move not just fast, but recklessly. Here is my list of key questions to try and make sense of it all:

1. Is one vaccine enough?

Simultaneous testing of large numbers of candidates across multiple vaccine platforms increases the chances of quickly finding a safe and efficacious vaccine. The current pipeline of COVID vaccines includes well over 150 candidates, with over 40 already in human clinical trials. Because of the extraordinary global interest in developing safe, effective and easy-to-manufacture COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible, the candidates represent a broad array of approaches – DNA, RNA, live-attenuated, inactivated, subunit and viral vector vaccines – some have been used for common current vaccines, while others are novel approaches. My organization, AVAC, created a COVID-19 Vaccine Pipeline Cheat Sheet. It offers advocates an at-a-glance view of the products, funders, research phase and considerations for some of the front-runner candidates, as well as refresher on the different platforms. (Editor’s note: this cheat sheet is highly recommended, it gives the basic information in an easy format).

2. How is vaccine development going so fast?

The traditional approach to vaccine testing runs preclinical and then Phase I, II and III studies in sequence, sometimes with gaps between each study. To speed timelines, some COVID-19 vaccine studies are advancing to the next phase of research as soon as data show the vaccine is promising and safe, even while the previous study phase is still underway. This accelerated approach has long been championed by AIDS and TB vaccine advocates – but those processes remain much slower with far fewer financial resources and much less pharmaceutical company involvement. The COVID-19 vaccine response has ushered in a new era of collaboration in research and research funding. Based on models developed in HIV research, collaboratives such as the WHO-led ACT Accelerator, the US government’s ACTIV consortium and Operation Warp Speed and others are pursuing different approaches to speed COVID-19 vaccine development, by collaborating on COVID-19 vaccine science and funding. This includes advance purchase commitments, where public-sector and philanthropic funders negotiate a price and plan to purchase and distribute vaccines, before the vaccine testing process is completed. There are both risks and benefits to this expedited research – check out our guide here.

3. But is it safe?

Going fast cannot mean a license to go recklessly – the safety of those people receiving a vaccine at any point must be the primary priority, for any and every vaccine, and especially given the high political profile of COVID-19. Every trial has an independent Data Safety and Monitoring Board (DSMB) that reviews the data on an ongoing basis. Given the current politicization, the nine leading pharmaceutical companies recently signed a pledge to follow the science in development of COVID-19 vaccines, and promise to prioritize safety. But don’t just believe the companies – at least two of the most promising vaccine candidates in large-scale trials have paused their trials to investigate serious adverse events seen by the DSMB – these pauses are not uncommon and actually give us confidence that safety is, indeed, being put first.

4. Can I trust the process?

Regulatory review by agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is traditionally a methodical, rigorous process that can take many months. HIV advocates played a vital role in speeding review of new treatment and prevention options for HIV and AIDS. This created the compassionate use and emergency access systems being used today to help ensure rapid access to potential prevention and treatments for COVID-19. But regulatory review can only be accelerated to a point; it must be based on adequate data and allow for the thoughtful, informed and unbiased decision-making that is central to the product approval process. The FDA is currently under the most scrutiny given US politics, and here is our Regulatory Approval Primer for Vaccine Advocates. And my colleague Uché Blackstock of Advancing Health Equity and I recently wrote this commentary about Science, not politics, must lead to COVID vaccine approvals.

5. If we build it, will they come?

In our commentary, Dr. Blackstock and I argued why undue political pressure to speed the introduction of COVID vaccines is bad news, and threatens scientifically proven systems to protect public safety and research integrity – for COVID vaccines and for the vaccine enterprise generally. The consequences of any vaccine approval that appears to have been influenced by politics would be particularly grave for Black and Latinx communities in the US and marginalized populations around the world, who have real reasons to distrust both politicians and drug testing processes, and who are also at significantly increased risk for COVID infection and illness. The rapid development of safe and effective COVID vaccines could help end this pandemic and strengthen worldwide faith in vaccines. But that can’t happen unless we take the signals of diminishing public faith in the process seriously and eliminate any sign of political interference in vaccine testing or approval. To protect health around the world, and advance health equity, we must insist on a COVID vaccine effort that is fast, transparent, thorough and safe, and guided by science, not politics.

6. Will the first one be the best one

The world will undoubtedly need more than one COVID-19 vaccine, especially to ensure enough manufacturing capacity. Plus, the first product to have a regulatory approval may not be the best – or the easiest to manufacture, the cheapest, or the easiest to deliver. But the first approval may challenge how to design and conduct future trials, as a placebo-control may not be ethical once we have an initial approval. Again, HIV researchers and advocates have grappled with these challenges for decades, so this is not new, nor a bad thing, but adds a degree of complexity to our future.

7. Who should get the vaccine? And who decides?

As complex as vaccine research and development is, vaccine delivery is even more so. In many respects, any regulatory approval is not the beginning of the end, but, rather, the end of the beginning. This is especially true for a vaccine that will be needed by billions of people. There many logistics questions: Are there enough glass vials and needles? Can companies make such large volumes in a matter of months? But who will buy these vaccines? And, most importantly, who will ensure that there is equitable distribution? Already, many wealthy countries have made advanced market commitments to buy billions of doses. This buying power has led to concerns of “vaccine nationalism” and crowded out any potential for equity and public health strategy. As we know too well, COVID anywhere can quickly become COVID everywhere. WHO, GAVI and CEPI have joined efforts to create the COVAX Facility to, hopefully, mitigate against these risks and ensure global equitable access.

8. A vaccine is essential, but not sufficient

Even as we look towards a safe, effective, affordable and accessible COVID-19 vaccine sometime in 2021 (we hope), we already have critically important public health measures available today can help reduce the global burden – wear a mask; wash your hands; remain physically distant (while socially connected); and contact tracing. These measures will be just as important even when we have a safe and effective vaccine, while the world grapples with delivery challenges.

This is not unique to COVID-19; we have important lessons from 40 years of HIV – we need a comprehensive, integrated and sustained response, even if we had a vaccine (which, sadly, we still don’t) and especially when we don’t. We must act with urgency to develop vaccines because they are essential; and we must act comprehensively since a vaccine alone won’t be enough.


Conclusion

In this blog I have not written about the dire situation in the UK. Numbers of infections are climbing very rapidly. There are signs of panic from some leaders, while mistrust of the government and their policies is growing. There is talk of another complete lockdown (at the moment the nation is operating on a tiered lockdown system with levels from zero to three. The same confusion is true in the USA, with the added complication of the Teflon President and the looming election.

It is not just in the UK and USA that numbers are growing. In several European countries and cities, the curves are in the wrong direction. My task for next week will be to try to drill down on this in more detail, but readers if there are things (topics or areas) you want covered, please do let me know and I will do my best.

References

AVAC’s COVID news brief http://www.avac.org/covid-news-brief

Totally Under Control is a new documentary released yesterday. Filmed and edited in secret over the last five months this documentary follows the Trump administration response to COVID-19. You will have to Google to find out how to watch it, I have not got that far.

Thank you for reading, reposting and providing comments. What I write is public domain so please share, forward and disseminate. My contact is: awhiteside@balsillieschool.ca


  1. Nina Overton-de Klerk and Caroline Azionya, ‘The world is drowning in Covid-19 communication but isn’t much smarter for it’ MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED 12 October 2020 http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-10-12-the-world-is-drowning-in-covid-19-communication-but-isnt-much-smarter-for-it/
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1968-pandemic.html
  3. Nina Overton-de Klerk and Caroline Azionya op.cit.
  4. Johns Hopkins University https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html
  5. https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus
  6. https://ourworldindata.org/about
  7. Nina Overton-de Klerk and Caroline Azionya op.cit.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid. and to add I find I am irrationally annoyed at the lack of change on websites I visit frequently
  10. https://gbdeclaration.org/
  11. Ibid.
  12. Nafeez Ahmed, ‘Climate Science Denial Network Behind Great Barrington Declaration,’ 9 October 2020 https://bylinetimes.com/2020/10/09/climate-science-denial-network-behind-great-barrington-declaration/
  13. https://gbdeclaration.org/
  14. Mitchell Warren is the Executive Director, AVAC is a non-profit organization that seeks to accelerate the ethical development and global delivery of new HIV prevention options. http://www.avac.org AVAC is producing a COVID news brief see http://www.avac.org/covid-news-brief

Covid-19 Watch: Schadenfreude

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

The past two weekends have seen heavy rain and strong wind in the UK. This meant every last walnut on the tree was gone in 24 hours. I blame the squirrels as I simply could not find any windfall nuts. I think they watched the forecast and then had a very busy few hours. Hopefully, most of the nuts are safe and dry in the drey, and not buried around the garden. In addition, because of the gales, a roof tile had come loose. It was within an ace of falling through the conservatory roof. That was dealt with by an amazing roofer in about 20 minutes, who responded in record time. Thank you, Richard Bartram of Hellesdon Roofing who simply climbed onto the roof, replaced the tile and dealt with a second that we had not seen, not to mention fixing a leak in the fibreglass!

The Covid-19 epidemic continues to pass milestones: there have been over 35 million cases globally and over a million people have died. While the cumulative number of cases continues to rise, the number of active cases is falling as people recover, and the daily increase seems to be stabilising. The situation in the UK is bleak with unclear messaging and many issues. Large parts of the country are under lockdown, but many are up in arms about the totalitarian way it is being done. There is more on this in the section on the UK. Last Wednesday I downloaded the Trump/Biden debate and listened to it over a few walks and cycle rides. Trump was beyond ghastly, but Biden was not inspiring. Oh dear, this left me with a sense of foreboding for global politics. Then, on Friday, Trump was taken to hospital with Covid-19. This is covered in the section on the USA.

The looming issue is how we are going to deal with the economic, social and psychological effect of the pandemic. How do we deal with the terrible sense felt by so many young people that their futures have been stolen? What happens to imprisoned, isolated and lonely elderly people.
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Covid-19 Watch: Confusion

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

On Tuesday, the global death toll attributed to the coronavirus topped one million people. The largest share, by an order of magnitude, was reported from the USA. This bleak milestone has been extensively covered by the worlds’ media. However, in terms of the daily number of confirmed cases there seems to be a plateau, or at the very least, the numbers are not rising as rapidly. To put Covid-19 into perspective, in 2017 there were 620,000 deaths from malaria, 794,000 from suicide and 954,000 from HIV and AIDS.1 This is the greatest death toll from a pandemic for centuries.

In this blog I want to turn to, and revisit, some fundamental issues:

  • How many coronavirus cases have there been?
  • How many of the cases matter and how much?
  • What does excess mortality look like?
  • One major concern has been the link between HIV and Covid-19. It seems there is some clarity on this – and good news, as discussed in a special section.
  • Finally, in the conclusion, I ask what is the impact of the virus?

The reason for this revisit is because of the way data are portrayed. Each evening in the UK we are informed by newsreaders of the number of new cases and the number of deaths. One graph shows the new cases recorded since the epidemic began. At first sight is deeply concerning, there are far more new cases reported at present than there were in April at the height of the pandemic. On the 25th September there were 6,878 new cases, well above the previous peak of 5,505 on the 22nd April. It should be noted this is data for the United Kingdom, it can be disaggregated for the four nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This pattern is seen in several other European countries. How concerned should we be? There is a sense of real worry because the northern hemisphere is entering the winter, and no one is quite sure what this means. Normally there will be many respiratory illnesses and indeed with schools having reopened and students returned to university, (where many students are now, unbelievably, locked in)2 there is a sense that there will be an inevitable increase in cases. At the same time, the number of deaths and hospitalisations has fallen dramatically and may well remain low.

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Covid-19 Watch: Gloom

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

The few days in the run up to the publication of this blog have been glorious. The days have been warm and sunny while the nights are starting to turn chilly. On Sunday we took advantage of the weather to visit the beach and have a long walk. The national restrictions meant that we had to eat lunch outside of the little café, but that was fine. Driving through the beautiful Norfolk countryside, it would have been hard to know that the UK is wracked by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The news is generally not good, although, as you read this week’s blog, remember that there are countries where the epidemic is under control or has not rebounded. The situation in China and other Asian countries seems under control. Australia saw two spikes, but the number of Covid cases have since fallen dramatically. In most African countries (apart from South Africa) the numbers remain low, while there is under reporting, the epidemic is not as serious as was initially feared.

This week I focus on the situation in the UK as the situation is rapidly evolving here. The bulk of the blog was written in the early part of the week, but I finalised it on Wednesday. The number of cases has been climbing rapidly and the leadership is beginning to panic. On Monday there was a special broadcast by Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser, and Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England and the UK government’s Chief Medical Adviser. The presentation was given without any politicians present. It was a simple statement of current position and where the country could be without effective intervention.

Vallance and Whitty are responsible for providing scientific advice to the Prime Minister and members of cabinet; advising the government on policy on science and technology; ensuring and improving the quality and use of scientific evidence and advice; and supporting analysis and evidenced-based decision-making. The ultimate responsibility for decisions rests with the politicians.

On Tuesday Boris Johnson addressed Parliament, and in the evening spoke to the nation. The upshot of this is new restrictions that are pretty uniform across the UK. The nation was warned of a tough winter ahead and the possibility of a second national lockdown. The restrictions include a 10pm closing time for pubs and restaurants, bans on indoor team sports, and stricter rules on mask-wearing. There are even stricter local lockdowns. An indication of the government’s flailing response was the suggestion “freedom-loving” Britons will be blamed for more draconian restrictions.1
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Covid-19 Watch: Setbacks

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

I try to exercise every day. I have come to enjoy cycling and have a circuit of between 20 and 26 kilometres, which takes me just under two hours. I cycle around the end of Norwich International Airport, through the villages of Horsham St Faith and Drayton. There I join a cycle track, the Marriot Way, (another old railway line) that runs along the Wensum river valley. The last five kilometres home are through a recreation ground and end with a meander through our suburbs.

It has been pleasant and interesting to see the seasons change. A few days ago, there was quite a stiff easterly breeze. This is a pain; it blows in my face for the most difficult part of the ride. On this occasion though, I saw a kestrel, one of the resident birds of prey in Norfolk. It was riding the wind on the edge of a field, hovering, almost motionless, scanning the ground looking for mice or voles. Perhaps I should encourage it to meet my squirrels, although it is too small to take an adult squirrel.

On the squirrel issue, the battle continues. The walnuts are ripening and now there are two squirrels raiding the tree. My squirt gun is not powerful enough to reach the top branches, and anyway they have worked out that the denser foliage on the adjacent tree means I can’t see them. My message is now, “OK squirrels you win, but please only take the nuts I won’t be able to reach”. Alternatively, does anyone have a recipe for walnut and squirrel stew?

There is a new set of Coronavirus regulations in the UK. There is some variation in these, depending on which of the devolved regions citizens live in. I cover this in more detail below. The big picture globally is that we may be reaching a plateau, but there is variation across the world, within countries, and by population groups. The bad news is that the numbers of new cases seems to be rising, again, across many European countries. The good news is that they have fallen in South Africa, the country able to collect and provide the best data on the African continent. It also seems that the infection fatality rate (number of deaths) is falling everywhere.
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Covid-19 Watch: Rebounds cause concern

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

We are moving towards autumn here; the early mornings are cool and the nights are drawing in. There should be a last burst of summer though, a few days of decent temperatures. Saturday was a reasonably warm day and I went to ride in the countryside. The Bure Valley Railway is a 15 inch (381 mm) minimum gauge heritage railway. It runs north of Norwich from Wroxham to Aylsham (9 miles or 14.5 kilometres), and is a major tourist attraction in the area.

The track bed is on the former Great Eastern Railway, originally opened in 1880. I suspect my grandfather (a Norfolk railway man who lived in a railway crossing keeper’s cottage at Tungate just outside North Walsham) and father will have known it when it was in operation. Passenger traffic ended in 1952 and freight in 1982, the wide gauge track was lifted soon after. Fortunately, Norfolk County Council ‘safeguarded’ closed railway lines for use as public footpaths. The narrow-gauge line was built through a partnership between local government and the private sector. I cycled the entire length of the line (and back), taking a little over two hours to do so. I enjoyed the peace and quiet but also enjoyed seeing the five or six trains running on the line.

The squirrel wars continue, and I am losing. The creature shows little fear of me but has learnt the sound of my office door opening means it should decamp as rapidly as possible, scooting through the treetops to its lair at the back of the garden. There are plenty of nuts, so we can have peaceful coexistence.

One of the big questions we are all asking is what the future will look like. Yanis Varoufakis, the left leaning economist and Greek Minister of Finance in 2015, has just published a new book called Another Now which sets out ways we might seek to get ourselves out of this mess. The concept of a basic income grant features prominently. The book is reviewed in the Guardian‘s Review of 5th September. He has some ideas that do not fit with my agenda. Nonetheless I think he is probably one of the key thinkers in the world today.
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Covid-19 Watch: Identifying the Vulnerable

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

Last weekend involved a journey to visit family in East Yorkshire and, in particular, an elderly relative. This is one of the reasons why this blog is later and shorter than usual. We were able to do this as there is no longer a blanket ban on travelling and visiting people. It was a learning experience. It made me aware it was time to focus on some of the more vulnerable groups in our society.

Back in Norwich, the nuts are falling from the walnut tree in the garden. There will be an exceptional crop this year, enough so the squirrel has not been able to steal them all. They drive us wild by planting them around the garden, so we end up with walnut tree saplings. I don’t mind sharing, but I do object to being taken for granted so have invested in a powerful water gun!

I spent a happy hour or so shucking the green exterior off the nuts. The problem is that I was not wearing gloves, so my fingers are now stained a very dark brown. Google was not helpful. My first question: ‘how does one harvest walnuts?’, the answer ‘hit and shake the branches’. The second, ‘how to get walnut stains off your hands?’. The answer: ‘Wash your hands thoroughly, using a good quality soap and warm water. Apply lemon juice. Follow up with a round of cooking oil. Wash up.’ Well… not really! Gloves are going to be needed in the future!
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Covid-19 Watch: More Signs of Hope

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

Many people in the UK increased the amount of exercise they did during lockdown. I had our family bicycles repaired, sadly before the government introduced the bike repair subsidy, and began going for relatively long rides in the countryside. One circuit goes past the end of our local airport. The runways were laid down during the second world war and they, as well as the taxiways, are extensive. As a result, there are a large number of aircraft parked here. I was finally able to identify the livery on seven or eight of the planes as belonging to Fly Bra, a Norwegian airline operating mainly in Sweden. The second largest group are British Airways aircraft. I wonder what will happen to them in the longer term.

In this blog I will make some predictions about what is going to happen. It is time to think about where we are going and how long this may take. The guest spot is taken by Ian Ralph on the incredibly important topic of lockdown and mental health.

The Lancet published the first nationwide, population-based seroprevalence study of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. This was in Spain, at national and regional levels, with more than 61,000 participants. It was to provide ‘accurate prevalence figures according to sex, age—from babies to nonagenarians— and selected risk factors.’1 The results are fascinating. The national antibody prevalence was about 5%, with regional differences. Madrid’s prevalence was five times that of low-risk regions. A third of positive results were asymptomatic. There was no difference between men and women, little variation by age, and not much variation by occupation. Their conclusion:

“Despite the high impact of COVID-19 in Spain, prevalence estimates remain low and are clearly insufficient to provide herd immunity. This cannot be achieved without accepting the collateral damage of many deaths in the susceptible population and overburdening of health systems. In this situation, social distancing measures and efforts to identify and isolate new cases and their contacts are imperative for future epidemic control.”2

New Zealand went for over 100 days without any community infections. The nation was congratulating itself on its success. Then, on Monday 17th August, the country reported 13 new cases. Donald Trump said “Even New Zealand, did you see what’s going on in New Zealand? ‘They beat it, they beat it.’ It was like front page, they beat it, because they wanted to show me something,” he added. “The problem is, big surge in New Zealand … it’s terrible.”3 On the same day, the United States reported its highest daily total of 64,294 new cases. This is cognitive dissonance.
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Covid-19 Watch: Green Shoots!

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

There had been no rain in Norwich for six weeks and the garden was looking decidedly wilted. Finally, on Sunday night, the heavens opened, and to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning, sheets of rain fell. The lawn had been brown and within 24 hours was transformed into a green swath. The rain butts filled within a few days as showers continued to march across East Anglia. It was a reminder that nature is beyond our control, and Covid-19 is a reminder that it can turn on us. Zoonotic events like the one that gave us SARS-Cov-2 are becoming more frequent. We must both prevent them through better stewardship, and be prepared for them. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting analysis: ‘A deadly coronavirus was inevitable. Why was no one ready?’ the subheading: ‘Scientists warned of a pandemic for decades, yet when Covid-19 arrived, the world had few resources and little understanding’. The authors conclude withdrawal of support to the Atlanta based Centers for Disease Control meant early warnings mechanisms were lost.1

In general, the epidemic is beginning to become more predictable and there are a growing number of countries where daily cases have peaked and are now falling. This includes South Africa, the subject of this week’s guest contribution, where the number of new cases peaked towards the end of July. Across much of Europe the daily number of new cases was declining but some countries, notably Spain, France and the Netherlands have, over the past week, reported increases. Boris Johnson’s government has imposed quarantines on people arriving from certain countries, the footnote sets out the complex governance in the UK.2 Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have different rules and regulations regarding gathering and could, but don’t yet, have different quarantines.

In this blog I wanted to make some predictions about the future. It is time to think about where we are going and how long this may take. I am aware that this is inadvisable, after all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes said: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts”.3 In addition, I am aware that this week’s offering is becoming too long, so I will hold that over for a week.
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Covid-19 Watch: I don’t think I understand anything anymore!

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

The year I turned 50, rather a long time ago, I decided I wanted to acquire three new skills. These were learning to fly a small plane; bodyboarding (I recognised ‘standing-up’ surfing was already beyond me); and ballroom dancing. I tried all and can do none. Flying was fantastic fun. I accumulated 24 hours, but the minimum to get a license is 44. Taking off was amazing: powering down the runway; pulling back the stick; lifting off; levelling out to pick up more speed; and then up and off. The problem was landing – the instructor said, “Alan I can teach you how to fly, but I can’t teach you how to land, you have to feel the moment when the wheels touch down and you take the power off”. Thinking, talking, and writing about Covid-19 feels a bit like this. We got up, and now do not know how to get down, making up the checklists as we go.1

This week I want to pose a conundrum and ask if anyone has any insights. The conundrum is: at the beginning of the epidemic it was suggested the virus would rampage through populations. So far it has not, or at least not to the levels predicted, and this is especially the case in Africa at the moment. It was discussed in the covid19ssa google group chat I am a part of. One contribution was headed ‘a tempest in a teapot?’.

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