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Longer lockdown 'not warranted' says leading immunologist

Irish immunologist says keeping the country shut isn't necessary as social distancing alone will fight Covid-19, writes Niamh Horan

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A DIFFERENT APPROACH: Two women enjoy the spring weather as they sit at Nybroplan in Stockholm during the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: AFP/Getty

A DIFFERENT APPROACH: Two women enjoy the spring weather as they sit at Nybroplan in Stockholm during the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: AFP/Getty

AFP via Getty Images

A DIFFERENT APPROACH: Two women enjoy the spring weather as they sit at Nybroplan in Stockholm during the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: AFP/Getty

An immunologist has warned that keeping Ireland under lockdown is having only a modest impact in the fight against Covid-19.

Paul Moynagh, professor of immunology at Maynooth University, points to two studies that raise serious questions about the value of keeping Ireland behind closed doors.

In the first study, data across 24 countries, including Sweden, the Netherlands and Ireland, shows that the virus is following the same downward path - regardless of whether a country is in full lockdown, which suggests that social distancing is the key to suppressing the virus - not more extreme measures.

In the second study, newly published in the Science journal, researchers in Wuhan, China, concluded that strict social distancing alone would have been enough to control viral transmission.

If true, Ireland could be channelling billions into keeping the economy in deep freeze when strict social distancing could achieve close to the same result.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Prof Moynagh said: "We have to ask if the return that we get for exercising full lockdown justifies closing down the entire economy and seriously threatening non-Covid-19 healthcare. A lockdown was the right thing to do at the start to get control of the virus, but we need to ask if its continuation is warranted."

He added: "A number of people in public health briefings now have said 'It is not the time to review' but I think - and without being personally critical of people - now is the time to review because we have to see if we can make suggestions or changes that will help us in the long run. I don't think it's wise to continue on a path without some self-reflection to see can we do some things better - because it is too late after the event."

Prof Moynagh was speaking after leading mathematician Professor Zvi Ziegler and his colleague Professor Isaac Ben-Israel found that in 24 countries, the virus follows the same set pattern after 70 days - no matter what measures governments impose to try and suppress it. And although each country followed different rules, after eight weeks they all converged at the same point of the chart.

The study looked at countries with restrictive lockdowns, such as France and Belgium, and others that were more relaxed, including the Netherlands and Sweden.

Speaking about the latest data, Prof Moynagh said: "It is interesting that most countries show the same profile and pattern of infection rates, irrespective of whether lockdown was imposed or not. This suggests that the prior social distancing and hygiene measures have a more dominant effect than lockdown."

While speaking to the Sunday Independent this weekend, Prof Ziegler pointed out that the downward trend in each country occurred as soon as the public became aware of the danger.

He said: "What that means is that the level of intensity of the restrictions [whether mild restrictions or full lockdown] is not what really counts. What really counts is human behaviour.

"People need to practise social distancing, washing their hands, wearing masks, not touching one's face and avoiding large crowds, but the data shows that preventing people from going out makes very little difference, once all of these are in place."

On whether people could be trusted to practise self-restraint, he said: "Most people are inherently selfish - and self-protection from a disabling disease or death is important to everybody. Thus, for the next few months, people should be told again and again to self-protect by following the social distancing and hygiene rules - not because the Government says so, but because it is in one's own interest."

His comments come as the World Health Organisation (WHO) has held Sweden up as a "model" for battling the coronavirus.

Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO's emergencies expert, said there were "lessons to be learned" from the Scandinavian nation, which has largely relied on citizens to self-regulate.

"I think there's a perception out that Sweden has not put in control measures and just has allowed the disease to spread," Dr Ryan told reporters. "Nothing can be further from the truth."

He said that instead of lockdowns, the country has "put in place a very strong public policy around social distancing, around caring and protecting people in long-term care facilities.

"What it has done differently is it has very much relied on its relationship with its citizenry and the ability and willingness of its citizens to implement self-distancing and self-regulate. In that sense, they have implemented public policy through that partnership with the population".

With reference to Ireland's experience, Prof Moynagh said: "Social distancing and other measures dramatically decreased the R0 value even before lockdown - so we would hope that it would be sufficient - along with intensive and fast testing and tracing to drive it even lower when lockdown is lifted."

R, the 'effective reproduction number', is a way of rating the spread of the disease. It is the average number of people that one infected person can pass the virus on to.

When R is above 1, an epidemic can grow exponentially. Anything below 1 and it will fizzle out. Ireland's current R value is estimated to be between 0.5 and 0.8.

On Ireland's death rate, Prof Moynagh said: "I've seen other analysis that suggests that social-distancing measures exercise the major effect on reducing death rates even before the effects of lockdown could have been realised."

Prof Ziegler said: "The raw data is there for all to see, and competing theoretical explanations for the nearly uniform pattern, common to all countries, will surely be developed by epidemiologists."

He added: "It seems to me that it will become obvious - even to very cautious leaders - that it is pointless to keep everybody indoors."

Sunday Independent