by David Engelthaler
Monday, 21
December 2020
Explainer
08:44

Travel bans won’t stop the new Covid strain

Targeted measures rather than general suppression are more important than ever
by David Engelthaler
The UK’s new shutdowns and travel bans are not warranted. Credit: Getty

There’s a new Covid mutant strain in the air, with a name that only a taxonomist would love: VUI-202012/01; for now, let’s call it “VUI” — hopefully we won’t end up calling it COVID-21.

There is an observed epidemiological effect of the VUI mutations, as described by the rapid increase in incidence of the strain in multiple UK locales; however, there is not yet much in the way of empirical laboratory evidence of a mutational functional effect (eg, repeated viral replication studies; animal transmission studies, etc), like we have seen with the spike-D614G mutation that has dominated the pandemic since its arrival in Europe in early 2020.

So, given what we know, the question is: are the new UK shutdowns and travel bans from the UK warranted?

If this variant strain does indeed have significantly increased transmissibility, then invariably more cases will occur in even a shorter period of time and the effectiveness of track and trace programmes will be essentially nil; therefore, public health energy and effort should be specifically targeted at protecting those most likely to suffer serious disease and death.

This virus is already nearly impossible to actually stop (due to its asymptomatic presence and ability to superspread like the common cold), except with the most extreme lockdown measures (Note: as an epidemiologist, I am opposed to general lockdowns due to the severe negative social, psychological and economic consequences they directly cause; targeted closures such as pubs can provide benefit, but again, not without harm).

Given the current statistics, the total number of cases with the variant is likely much, much higher than is known, and it is likely already in many locales outside of the UK, where it has not yet been detected (largely because most places in Europe and US don’t have a comprehensive genomic sequencing effort like the UK, so most cases will never be identified as being VUI); therefore, travel bans now are closing that proverbial barn door after the viral-horses have bolted … again. That said, I think countries and states should be sequencing all cases arising in recent travellers from the UK and possibly EU, to get a better view on this. I am working with local health departments over here in the US to do the same.

Given that there is no known VUI-associated increase in disease severity (and perhaps an actual increase in milder cases in younger age groups), my recommended strategy would remain unaltered: general tactics for everyone (e.g., masking and distancing; limiting crowd size and family visitors, and limits on hospitality venues such as pubs) and focused tactics for the highest risk strategies (e.g., protection of the elderly through strictest safety protocols in nursing homes; vaccine to the elderly and their caregivers first, etc). Schools should open after the holidays, but special emphasis should be placed on keeping teachers safe, mostly from each other (e.g., no huddling in the staff room), in order to keep classes going.

Most importantly, I would ask our leaders to remember that the battle is against the pandemic not the people (whether domestic or abroad), and they should aim to lead us as best they can, not radically alter civilisation. They could start by reminding us that we all have an individual role to play in this, depending on our risk level: if you are young and healthy, you should act like you’re a possible carrier and do the things appropriate to limit spread to other people and prevent spread to the highest risk. If you are elderly, or otherwise at high-risk for serious disease, then you should act like everyone else is a possible carrier and protect yourself.

I am a strong proponent of immunisations and I would remind both risk groups that immunisation will be a way out of acting like the above in the future. When we say “we are all in this together”, it’s not because we are a “collective” where no one person actually needs to assume responsibility, but rather we are a collection of individuals that can all make our own difference and help diminish the likelihood of Covid-21.

David M Engelthaler, PhD MS is Genomic Epidemiologist and a former public health official for the state of Arizona.

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Mark Wilson
Mark Wilson
1 year ago

Hmmm – an asymptomatic variant that spreads like wildfire around the population? It would save us the trouble of vaccination!

Malcolm Ripley
Malcolm Ripley
1 year ago

What you propose is simply a watered down version of insanity. As an epidemiologist surely you know that respiratory viruses mutate all the time. So if you take that well established fact and couple it to your proposals for this new strain then we would have to wear masks and social distance FOREVER! That is the goddam freaking frustrating problem that you the experts simply dont address….join the dots to the logical conclusion of attempting to control the spread of a respiratory virus and you end up masked forever.

I thought we had an immune system that is, ironically, more effective at protecting us than the current vaccine. Yes folks look at the numbers. The additional advantage of our immune system is we don’t re-catch it and we don’t spread it as opposed to the vaccinated!

Finally “Covid-21”, straight out of the conspiracists handbook circulating during the summer……not a conspiracy anymore when it becomes fact! What was next on the list hmmm, scary.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Malcolm Ripley

None of the ‘experts’ have given any advice on maintaining a strong immune system!

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

seems none have mentioned immune systems at all. One would think the homeless would be dying in droves from this virus, yet they’re not. Could it be that their exposure to street life makes their systems stronger? How about places that are decided not first world countries where cases are few?

Kathryn Richards
Kathryn Richards
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Something I had also noticed. In theory India and African countries should be basket cases, but they aren’t. It’s the ‘advanced’ Western world which appears to be hardest hit.

Trish Castle
Trish Castle
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Immune system? What’s that? The world seems to have forgotten that the vast majority of us have a fully functioning immune system. Such a brilliant piece of scientific endeavour and it gets overlooked by arrogant humans who think they can engineer something better. I despair.

Warren Alexander
Warren Alexander
1 year ago

Is it possible or likely, that lockdowns are themselves responsible for this mutation? If previous lockdowns have made it more difficult for the virus to pass from one person to another, would those virus molecules that were better able to pass from one person to another gain dominance and hence a natural evolutionary process took place resulting in this mutation?
I am not suggesting that this did happen, just asking the question.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago

This is an interesting comment because, unlike most similar suggestions, you do not make the virus purposeful.

Harold Aitch
Harold Aitch
1 year ago

Whenever I read or hear an “expert” extolling the virtues of masks I switch off. I’ve seen the report from the Danish study and the usefulness of masks is negligible at best and even then only when treated with the same sort of protocols as a surgeon would treat their mask. And with 40+ years of research saying masks don’t work against influenza, why they work against an even smaller virus?

C Arros
C Arros
1 year ago
Reply to  Harold Aitch

And moreover consider the waste of resources (“estimates that global sales will total some $166 billion this year, up from around $800 million in 2019”) AND the environmental problem they pose (source

weforum.org/agenda/2020/08/….

Tim Diggle
Tim Diggle
1 year ago

I am no scientist but spent a good part of a working career analysing figures, albeit financial ones, frequently comparing past and current performance with forecasts then later comparing those forecasts with reality.

Applying that experience to the publicly available information on COVID I am drawn to the inevitable conclusion that whatever action or actions we take or do not take the virus continues to act in the way that viruses act. There seems to be little difference between outcomes, other than timing, irrespective of policy. All that seems to be consistent is that fatality rates appear to vary with the seasons and afflict primarily the elderly hence low rates in the third world and high in the first driven presumably by demographics (though Japan seems to be an exception) and healthcare prolonging lives.

Expert opinion appears at best divided on this issue…

Luke Lea
Luke Lea
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Diggle

Sounds about right.

Andrew Hall
Andrew Hall
1 year ago

Personally, I welcome this development because (hopefully) :
1. Minor mutations align Cov-10 with ‘flu’s variability, so
2. A ‘grand slam’ Cov-19 vaccine proves a chimera, and
3. Our masters perforce treat Covid-19 like common ‘flu, and
4. We notice UK mortality in 2020 are similar/below 2001 or 2004; finally
5. An unravelling economy deters climate pranksters’ doomsday hoax.
That’s the hope. Meanwhile, the UK sacrifices social cohesion and is riven with false fears by the pseudo-science gushing from No.10.

Hugh Clark
Hugh Clark
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Hall

Some hopes!

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

what’s more 2020 that having healthy people avoid other healthy people.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

Whatever…everything the authorities and ‘experts’ inflict upon us will be a counter-productive disaster. We have known this for many years now.

Michael Dawson
Michael Dawson
1 year ago

Depressing to read the first five posts here – misinterpreting the Danish study (which did not look at whether someone wearing a mask was less likely to infect others – the main likely benefit); general conspiracy theory nonsense; suggesting the new variant is asymptomatic, when there is no evidence for this statement; anti-vaccine knee-jerk reactions. Why don’t people actually read and engage with the specifics of articles, instead of using them as an excuse to rehearse their repetitive prejudices?

geoffbastin999
geoffbastin999
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael Dawson

So you have no prejudice then? But you are like anyone else that has an opinion.
My opinion is that this latest mutated panic stricken story is just more of the same since Covid-19 ceased to be of any concern after last June.
Viruses come and go every day and it’s only our immune systems that keeps us alive.
But, and it’s a very big but we also have to consider The Great Reset which is not a conspiracy theory because it is the creed of the World Economic Forum all supported by oligarchs, politicians, presidents, popes and princes when they all meet up in Davos each year to plan our future.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael Dawson

Why don’t people actually read and engage with the specifics of articles,
Because they have already seen this movie.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

What is more 2020 than having perfectly healthy people avoid other perfectly health people. I have yet hear a convincing argument of how someone who is not infected can possibly stop the spread of a virus that he/she does not have by staying home or wearing a piece of cloth.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

I have yet hear a convincing argument of someone who is not in fect ed can possibly stop the spread of a virus that he/she does not have by staying home or wearing a piece of cloth.