I’ve been lucky enough to be attending Cambridge University’s ‘Virtual Summer Festival of Learning Talks’ and in particular one given earlier this week by Dr Chris Smith, a Medical Consultant specialising in Clinical Microbiology and Virology at the University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital. He sheds some informed light on Covid-19 – where did it come from and when will it go away.
Health warning: The following is written based solely on my own understanding of what Dr Smith said during his 45-minute lecture.
When and why?
There is good evidence suggesting that the first cases of Covid-19 predated China’s announcement in January 2020 to the World Health Organization. But it is also fair to suggest that prior to January 2020, no one – including the Chinese – had a real grasp on the severity of the situation.
Sadly, by that time, Covid-19 had spread widely without anyone realising it. In large part this was because around 80% of people infected show no symptoms. Likewise, only one in five of those infected develop an illness serious enough to attract attention. The most likely culprit regarding the severity and speed of the global spread was unmitigated air travel during the crucial time between late 2019 and early 2020. By the time borders started to shut in 2020, we were already in deep trouble.
There are about 5,000 coronaviruses occurring in nature some specific to humans and some specific to certain animals. Only a handful can jump species. But when that happens, the way in which the virus behaves in the new species is wildly different and can rapidly change without notice. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that is what happened with Covid-19, although no one can ever be certain. But we are fairly certain that exactly this type of thing has happened before – as with the flu that in 1918 infected 1/3 of the world population and in 2002-2003, with the SARS Mark 1 virus.
What about Wuhan?
According to Dr Smith, this is a smoking gun. Not only is the genetic code of Covid-19 nearly 96% similar to bats in China, but Wuhan does have a lab dedicated to corona virus research, which, by the way, is funded by many different countries including the United States of America. The point to remember is that such research is not only routine but also highly legitimate and it is carried on in the same way for the same reasons, in many parts of the world.
Dr Smith thinks it highly unlikely that if the virus escaped from the lab, it was allowed to do so on purpose. There are many ways in which, accidently, this might have happened. But is that what happened? We do not know. All we know is that the lab did have something very close to this strain on the premises. But for a more informed opinion, we would need further information and unfortunately on this point, China is not currently playing ball.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Dr Smith explains it’s all down to R-value (reproductive), which at the beginning of any outbreak starts at R-0. As things move forward, we shift forward into R-2, which means that each infection causes two more infections.
We might expect that without anything to stop it, Covid-19 would rise to R-3 or R-4, which makes it twice as infectious as the flu. But don’t forget that there are a variety of important factors that are not so easily measured as with, for example, the effect of ‘super-spreaders’ (i.e., highly networked people with multiple points of contact).
By comparison, consider the measles that carries an R-value of 12-20.
Should you get vaccinated?
The data now suggests that as compared to the unvaccinated, vaccinated adults are 95% more protected from severe cases of Covid-19 and/or death. For children, especially the 12–16-year age group, let’s face the fact that they are as likely to catch the virus as the R rate operative in their area otherwise suggests.
But although their chances of serious illness/death are much less likely than adults or those considered vulnerable for other reasons, they are still carriers.
Here’s the real kicker: combine the data showing that 80% of those infected show no symptoms with the data suggesting that 80-90% of all transmissions of Covid-19 occur in your own home, and you may want to reconsider your position on vaccination both for yourselves and your kids.
There are risks with any vaccination but one of the main risks here is myocardial titus ,or inflation of the heart, and the 1 in a million chance of developing this are about the same as expected with actually contracting the virus.
Are masks effective?
This, as Dr Smith reminds us, is a political hot potato and when evaluating it we need to consider that PPE and masks in the hospital environment is not the same thing as wearing masks in public.
Wearing a mask when walking down the street is, in his opinion, a wasted effort. Wearing a mask in a more crowded indoor environment with inadequate ventilation and/or little opportunity for social distancing makes more sense. But let’s be honest here, too. Wearing a mask may help to keep those infected from spreading the infection, but it will not keep you from catching it.
Furthermore, most people outside of the hospital environment are not properly wearing their masks. For example, if you wear eyeglasses and find them fogged over when wearing a mask, that is a pretty clear indication that your mask is ineffective. Likewise, consider standing in a smoky room. If the smoke is getting to you, then so is the Covid-19 virus, which is actually smaller than the particles found in that smoke.
Will Covid-19 go away?
The short answer is no.
It’s in nature and even if we did manage to eradicate it, it would just come back again. Consider that of the 8 billion people on earth, there are 7 billion that are either uninfected or unvaccinated and that’s a whole lot of people with whom the returning virus can have a field day. It is Dr Smith’s opinion that we need find a way to live with Covid-19 and in this respect, vaccination is key because it converts a lethal infection into something that, like the flu or the common cold, is for the most part mildly irritating.
By the way, notes Dr Smith, if we think that we think we can go on avoiding catching Covid, then think again. Many suggest they’ve never had the flu. Yet that reality is highly unlikely. The reason you thought the flu that you actually had wasn’t much more than a cold is because the vaccination or herd immunity kept it at bay. Same with Covid. The more opportunity our immune systems have to come in contact with such viruses (without it killing you), the better and better our immunity will become.
Whilst it is true that future variants will develop some resistance to the vaccines, it is the view of Dr Smith that such variants will never become completely resistant. The suggestion is that as long as we continue to share information globally so that as with annual flu vaccines, the Covid-19 vaccines are continually updated, we will beat the variants.
Finally, as we open up here in the UK we can expect the current levels of infection will continue to rise – perhaps up to 50,000 to 100,000 cases each day. This should peak in a couple of months. But Dr Smith is reasonably confident the vaccines will hold serious illness, complications, and death at bay. In January, we had similar levels of infection as we have now and then 50% of all NHS beds were occupied by Covid patients. At the moment, although infections rates are rising, admissions to hospitals because of Covid-related illness are no-where near that – and although only time will tell for certain, fingers crossed it continues in this way.