As the second wave of Covid-19 infections breaks tumultuously over our heads, it’s disappointing that there’s still so much misinformation out there, and some of it is originating from places where it really didn’t ought to. But that’s just one factor in a complicated mosaic that has led us to this dismal outcome.
On a recent Radio 5 Live Sunday Breakfast programme, presenter Rick Edwards berated one of his guests for sounding hopeful about a vaccine. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘The common cold and flu are caused by coronaviruses, and we haven’t got an effective vaccine against them, have we?’. The guest didn’t disagree with this statement, but then he was a physics teacher, so might not have been up on viruses.
Let’s get this straight. Firstly, flu isn’t caused by a coronavirus. It’s caused by a flu virus. Influenza viruses are a completely separate group of viruses. Their genetic material is made from DNA, not RNA as in coronaviruses. They look quite different, in that they don’t have the spiky ‘halo’ that coronaviruses have. In fact, they’re more different from coronaviruses than Rick Edwards is from a jellyfish. Not specifically the misinformed Mr Edwards, that applies to all of us.
There are many flu viruses, which differ mostly according to the structure of the protein coat that encloses their genetic material. That’s the bit that provokes an immune reaction when we get an infection, and is also the bit that can be used to promote the production of antibodies when we’re vaccinated. Flu vaccines are very effective. But they’re only effective at preventing one type of flu virus infection. So each year, epidemiologists have to try to work out which varieties of flu virus will turn up this season, and vaccinate against those. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t, which is why flu vaccine cocktails don’t always work.
It is true that the common cold is caused by coronaviruses. Sometimes. The common cold isn’t a specific disease as such, it’s a set of symptoms that’s caused by a number of relatively mild respiratory viruses, some of which are coronaviruses. It’s true that over the years there has been considerable research on the common cold and developing a vaccine, but the difficulty of doing that has never really justified the huge investment that would be necessary for a relatively minor ailment.
There has also been a lot of coverage given to a study by Imperial College on whether immunity to Covid-19 is permanent. It found that antibody levels did tail off a few months after exposure, particularly in older people. This led to some tabloid papers claiming that a vaccine wouldn’t work and we’re all consequently doomed. But this ‘tailing off’ of antibody levels isn’t all that unexpected. For some vaccinations, booster shots are needed. This is true for polio, diphtheria and tetanus, for example. Sometimes, these boosters are best given soon after the initial vaccination, at the point when the antibody level reaches its peaks. For others, it’s a repeat vaccination, perhaps once every ten years. So it wouldn’t be too surprising if the Covid vaccine needed a booster shot, maybe even once a year. We can manage that for cats, for feline HIV and leukaemia, so we ought to be able to manage it for humans. But on top of all that, out of the millions of Covid-19 infections across the world, there are still only a tiny handful that have been proven to be second infections. As we approach the first anniversary of this virus jumping species to humans, that implies a practical immunity of a year, at least.
Meanwhile, the second wave of Covid-19 infections has comprehensively arrived, catching the government seemingly unawares, with Boris Johnson urging everyone to go back to work, then almost immediately telling us all to work from home again. The second wave shouldn’t have been such a surprise – I predicted it back in my post in June, as did many others. The government’s flagship ‘world beating’ test and trace system has been an utter failure, tracing ever decreasing percentages of contacts. Latest official figures show only about a half of those identified as having been exposed to infection are successfully traced, although BBC Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’ programme (one that can be relied on for facts) made the point that even this is misleading, as it includes care homes, where all contacts can be traced as they have the contact details of everyone who enters the premises. Take those out from the figures, and the numbers traced drop by more than ten percent. And then of course, although it’s a legal obligation to self-isolate if traced, many aren’t doing that. A recent survey showed only around 20 percent of those told to isolate actually did fully self-isolate, for the full period. Take all that together, and it’s not hard to see how the system has failed. But even the best test and trace system couldn’t cope with the level of infections we have now. It was only ever intended to identify one-off infection events where the overall number of cases is low.
From the point when lockdown was eased, and the ‘stay at home’ message was diluted with ever more complex laws, rules, and guidance, coupled with even more confusing regional variations, the path was unavoidable. A labyrinth leading to an inevitable second wave had been created.
Now, as the number of cases, hospital admissions and deaths rise with increasing rapidity, the Prime Minister is making a rabbit in the headlights look calm and in control. On one side he has far-right Tory MPs arguing that a few tens of thousands of deaths are acceptable if it protects the economy and keeps taxes on the rich down. On the other, he has the more reasonable Tory MPs who believe saving lives should be a priority, backed up by every strand of scientific advice that tells him he’s not doing anywhere near enough to protect people’s lives and the NHS. It is dispiriting though that the Labour leadership has not exactly been a beacon of hope and decisiveness through all this. After months of supporting the government, Keir Starmer did eventually take a different line and speak in favour of a national lockdown, at least as a ‘circuit breaker’. But he hasn’t sustained the consistent and strong voice that we need to be raised in support of an alternative plan.
This should be a no-brainer. Apart from anything else, there’s a big difference between the rules that govern the economy and the rules that govern virus transmission and reproduction. The economy is an entirely human construct and has been with us for a few hundred years. Viruses are natural, and have been around for over three billion years. There are a lot more options to change the rules that govern the economy than there are to change the rules that govern viruses.
Because of confusing rules, bad decisions, over-optimism, misinformation and a failure of leadership, we now find ourselves heading back to where we were at the Covid peak in April. As a full lockdown is imposed across the rest of Europe, it seems inevitable that it will come here too. We need another full lockdown, with adequate compensation for businesses and individuals affected.
But once again, it will be too late, and will have to stay in place for a lot longer than would have been necessary if the Prime Minister had summoned the courage to act sooner and more decisively. Next year, we’ll have a vaccine. That will stop the virus, or at least substantially diminish it, even if it does need a booster – thanks to scientists, not Tory politicians. From then on, life will get back to normal, albeit a new normal. But it’s a shocking fact that when all this is over, government mishandling of the pandemic in the UK will have led to many thousands of avoidable Covid deaths. It’s an episode in our history that will be remembered for centuries, but not with any celebration of success.