Saturday, August 21, 2021

UK risks making more COVID variants as virus rips

The pandemic is far from over, but government data, such as the R0 number, as well as mixed messaging has made many people complacent. 

A month or so after so-called Freedom Day in England both coronavirus deaths and hospital admission have risen. However, other data appears to suggest a slowing of the spread. 

Question over the R0 rate

This week the R0 number in the UK was said to have risen from 0.9 to 1.2 [Sky News]. However, the data needed to extrapolate this number is reliant on accurate data gathering. 

Data - such as the number of people dying, admitted to hospital or testing positive for the virus over time - is used to estimate how easily the virus is spreading.
However with less people doing tests, these figures will not prove accurate.

In 'normal' times, without attempts to mitigate spread - such as increased sanitation, social distancing and the use of masks - the R rate will remain at its normal level.

The R rate for measles is between 12 and 18, meaning one infected person can infect between 12 and 18 others. That rate only recedes by putting barriers between the infected and those not having contracted the disease.

In an extreme example the R rate could be reduced to zero. But this would require an absolute quarantine of an entire population, which is impractical in most societies.

The same is true with the coronavirus. Initial studies appeared to show that the original strain of COVID-19 had an R rate of at least 2.5.

This figure has increased however with more virulent and contagious variants emerging. Indeed it is estimated by the CDC that the Delta strain [B.1.617.2] has an R0 rate as high as 8 [NPR]. And with no mitigation measures in place the R0 rate will remain at this level.

With Britain, in particular, and other countries reducing coronavirus restrictions, especially concerning masks, the R0 rate will likely have reverted to normal levels.

Dispensing of masks

There is much debate over the efficacy of masks, but the general scientific standpoint is that the work in stemming the spread of airborne viruses. Of course an N95, FFP2 or FFP3 is better than a simple surgical or cloth mask, especially concerning contracting a virus.

But the main purpose of masking up is not so much a matter of preventing contraction but avoiding the spread.

Should everyone wear even just a simple face covering aerosolised particles potentially containing the coronavirus are prevented from filling the air. There might be some escape but most of the exhaled aerosolised particles will essentially be trapped.

However with as many as 30% of people now dispensing with any form of mask, the air - especially in confined spaces - will by definition, be more saturated with water droplets containing the coronavirus.

In such circumstances an N95 mask or similar will afford greater protection to the wearer. But it is still not 100%. Indeed nothing short of a full level 4 biohazard suit with proper filtration will stop infection.

But who is going to walk around their local supermarket or sit on the subway dressed like Dustin Hoffman from Outbreak, even if they could afford the extra expense of protection?

Even N95 masks aren't cheap and are beyond the budget of many people. N95 masks are single use and cost around £2 per unit. Given they are only effective for 3-4 hours a week's supply of masks for a single person could well exceed £20-£30.

A cloth mask which can be washed is affordable, and given everyone, and that means everyone, wears one in public, particularly in crowded environments, the R0 rate can be reduced significantly.

Restrictions gone

With testing now significantly down, with mask use also significantly down, and with more people mixing it is clear deaths and hospitalisations will rise.

These deaths and hospitalisations are mostly among the unvaccinated. But there are many immunocompromised individuals who can't get vaccinated who are falling ill.

UK government figures appear to indicate around 30,000 people testing positive daily. But there are many people who won't have taken a test. It is the rising hospitalisations and deaths that are a far clearer indication that the pandemic is far from over. And with the increased spread there will be more mutations some of which will fail to be stopped by the vaccines currently available [Nature / Guardian].

Social irresponsibility

The UK government has spoken of social responsibility and suggested that face masks be a matter of personal choice rather than being mandated in confined or indoor spaces. But it was clear this last week as MPs returned to parliament to discuss the debacle in Afghanistan that common sense and social responsibility had all but disappeared from government benches with only a handful donning masks [Daily Mail]. 

Opposition benches were at least trying to set an example, but, as already explained, in an enclosed space basic cloth coverings and surgical masks will offer only limited protection especially over a long period of time. 

British media has looked at the likes of China, Australia and New Zealand's swift mass testings and snap lockdowns as overkill after the discovery of single cases [WSJBBCBBC]. But surely better to err on the side of caution rather than letting the virus rip.

tvnewswatch, London, UK