Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Govt denies claims it intended to let virus rip to build herd immunity

Dominic Cummings has accused the government for failing to control the pandemic and for allowing the virus to run rampant. In a renewed Twitter tirade he repeated claims the government had planned to let coronavirus spread through the country to build "herd immunity", despite ministerial denials [Guardian / Sky News]. He has also claimed that the policy only changed when it was clear it would lead to a "catastrophe" [Sky News].

While it may be that Cummings only has his own self interests in mind, the accusations do stand up when looking at statements made by Boris Johnson and his scientific advisors before the country was forced to lockdown.

In early March 2020 as many as 10,000 people in the UK were said to likely be infected with coronavirus, and many people should expect to lose loved ones, the government said while announcing measures less stringent than those taken by other countries.


During a conversation with Philip Schofield on Good Morning Britain the PM seemed to indicate that strict measures were not required and that letting the virus spread throughout the population might be the best route [FullFactYouTube].

Asked whether he was "essentially trying to spread this out so it doesn't all happen at once and overwhelm the NHS'' Boris Johnson responded saying there had been a "lot of debate."

"One of the theories is, that perhaps you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures. I think we need to strike a balance, I think it is very important, we've got a fantastic NHS, we will give them all the support that they need, we will make sure that they have all preparations, all the kit that they need for us to get through it. But I think it would be better if we take all the measures that we can now to stop the peak of the disease being as difficult for the NHS as it might be, I think there are things that we may be able to do."

While he didn't clearly state that the virus should be allowed to rip, his actions, or rather the lack of them seemed to point to Cummings's assertion that government policy was to allow the virus to spread.

Delay phase

On 12th March Britain moved from the "contain" phase of the crisis to the "delay" phase whilst the death toll for UK citizens was at 12, two of them having died overseas, and the official number of infected people reached 590 [BBC].

Meanwhile Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said that worst-case scenario planning projected that 80% of the country would contract the virus, with a 1% mortality rate. This equated to more than 500,000 deaths.

A year later nearly 150,000 had died. Tragic as this was, three successive lockdowns likely reduced the projected death toll [Guardian].

Herd Immunity

Recent government denials concerning Cummings's claim the policy was one of creating herd immunity appears also to contradict reports at the time when Sir Patrick Vallance, England's chief scientific adviser, defended the government's approach to tackling the coronavirus, saying it could have the benefit of creating "herd immunity" across the population.

Britain's chief scientific adviser stoked controversy on Friday 13th March when he said that about 40m people in the UK could need to catch the coronavirus to build up "herd immunity" and prevent the disease coming back in the future.

"Communities will become immune to it and that's going to be an important part of controlling this longer term," Vallance said. "About 60 % is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity." [Sky News / Guardian / FT]

At the same time as the PM and the government's scientific advisors appeared to be following a plan of "allowing the virus to rip" through the population, ministers were facing growing questions about why the UK wasn't acting in a similar way to other European countries, such as France and Italy, who had taken measures ranging from banning large gatherings to quarantining the entire population.

Indeed at the very same time the Cheltenham festival took place attended by 251,684 people over the four day event, something regarded as having been a superspreader event since. Sir David King, the government's chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007, said it was "the best possible way to accelerate the spread of the virus" [Guardian / BBC].

Risk of variants

It might well appear academic and somewhat moot to analyse and criticise the UK government's past mistakes, whether they were made in good faith or because they failed to acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic and the spread of the virus.

However, it is all too possible that the government may well be repeating many of the same mistakes.

One major mistake that may be unfolding is their apparent failure to see the risk posed by the COVID-19 mutations, often referred to as variants.

It has long been known that viruses mutate, be they DNA or RNA based viruses [CBC].

To survive, unlike plants, animals and other organisms, the only way a virus can reproduce is through a host cell, which it does by attaching its surface proteins to the cell's membrane and injecting its genetic material into the cell. This genetic material, either DNA or RNA, then carries with it the instructions to the cell's machinery to make more viruses. These new viruses then leave the cell and spread to other parts of the host organism.

But host organisms are not passive observers to this process, and over time a human's or other animal's immune system can learn from these encounters and develop strategies to prevent reinfection, in other words create an immunity to the disease. The next time the same virus comes to a host cell, it may find that it is no longer able to attach to the cell's surface membrane. So to survive, viruses must adapt or evolve, changing its surface proteins enough to trick the host cell into allowing it to attach.

However, the biggest factor in all this is population density of host organisms, in the case of COVID-19; humans.

"When you have high density conditions and overcrowding, like you would see in a pig farm, then the mutation occurs much more quickly as it passes from one snout to the next," says Dr. Earl Brown, a professor of microbiology at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine.

A virus that quickly kills its host as it spreads is more likely to thrive in densely populated areas where it can out-compete other viruses, but would die out when the supply of new hosts is in short supply, he says. Conversely, a virus that incubates in the host for weeks and spreads slowly is more likely to thrive.

Indeed by breaking transmission, such as locking down, increasing social distancing and wearing masks, viruses are less likely to mutate since one has essentially created a situation where the virus has no hosts in which to thrive and mutate.

Already there are more than a dozen variants that have sprung from the original COVID-19 virus, also known as SARS-CoV2. And in recent weeks the so-called Indian variant B.1.167.2 has raised concern.

Questions over vaccines

Recent studies seem to suggest that both the Pfizer BioNTech and AstraZeneca vaccines may well prove efficacious in preventing serious illness [BBC].

However, this is not enough in itself to 1. Stop the spread of the Indian variant, or 2. prevent further variants of the virus from developing.

It is clear that vaccination does not prevent infection, only reducing the serious effects, and as such could result in vaccinated people becoming asymptomatic carriers. This appears confirmed by the fact that American comedian Bill Maherwho had received both jabs of the vaccine subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 [NYPost]

Maher and the millions of others who have received the vaccine might well be 'safe'. But the millions of others who have not remain at risk of the virus.  And while it has generally been assumed that younger people are less likely to develop serious disease, their catching it could well result in more variants developing.

In the UK most under 40s have yet to receive their first jab, and in many countries around the globe vaccination take-up has also failed to create what scientists call 'herd immunity'.

Countries such as China, New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan essentially remain cut off from the world in lieu of their entire populations being vaccinated.

The rest of the world appears to be stumbling along, repeating the same mistakes and making up policy as each disaster strikes.

Cummings may well be attempting to rewrite his own history book and paint himself as being righteous. It is somewhat ironic that his criticism comes also exactly a year after he was forced to apologise for his own transgression of lockdown restrictions. But his criticism of government policy does seem to be founded in fact.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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