Living in West London during the lockdown in UK imposed as a consequence of the Coronavirus outbreak is a surreal experience. Normal existence, such as we knew less than two months ago, seems to have occurred in another lifetime. Some of us older ones lived through the nervous uncertainties of the Cold War and we all look with some trepidation at the imminent challenges posed by climate change. But this is something altogether different.
As a 58-year-old diabetic male, my vulnerability in the face of this virus is heightened. As is that of my son, who is asthmatic. Neither of us is listed among the 1.5 million most vulnerable as identified by the UK government, but we are open enough to complications for us to have gone voluntarily into more or less full isolation, along with the remainder of the household who are supporting us. Various in-laws and outlaws seem to be trying their level best to tempt us out into the perilous yonder, but thus far we are holding firm.
Readily available data
I am neither a virologist nor an epidemiologist. I am not even a statistician. But I have an O-level in Mathematics. And modest though this achievement may be in the wider scheme of academia it is sufficient to enable me to identify trends and to draw conclusions from data that is readily available to anybody with a connection to the Internet and a working knowledge of Google. Which is why I shudder at the evident bemusement of many of those commentators who pass for experts.
Throughout its handling of the crisis, my government has been keen to stress that it is "following the science". Political spokespersons are invariably accompanied during briefings by medical advisers and scientists aplenty of order and esteem. And yet what passes as the best of scientific advice one day seems so often to fall by the wayside the next. Thus our initial reluctance to suspend large sporting events was based on "scientific advice" which stated there was no evidence that large crowds of people packed closely together presented an ideal environment in which a virus might spread, only for contrary advice to be issued barely a day or two later. Likewise pubs and restaurants. "Following the science" has even been offered as an explanation for deficiencies in the provision of protective equipment to frontline workers and in a testing capacity. One could be forgiven for wondering whether political policy was being informed by the science, or vice versa.
That was then. Today we are in lockdown, and the discussion has moved on to how we are going to get out of it. Much flustered navel-gazing inevitably ensues as it dawns upon the great and the good, political and scientific, that a dynamic market economy cannot be held in suspended animation forever. So where does it all go from here?
If one wants to know what is likely to happen in the future, the past and indeed the present often serve as useful guides. And there is enough information to be found in the statistical data that we have collated since the initial outbreak in Wuhan, through the exponential pre-lockdown increases in the number of infections and deaths and on to the more welcome signs that have more recently begun to emerge from Italy and Spain, to give us some idea of where we are headed.
First of all, the long plateau followed by a gradual decline in the numbers reflects the less drastic approach taken by the European democracies than was adopted by China. When crisis comes there can be a price to pay for enjoying the benefits of a free and open society. In southern Europe, the descent from the "peak" of the outbreak is noticeably slower than was the original climb. With the United Kingdom's shutdown being less severe even than Spain's or Italy's, the unfortunate fact is that we can expect our recovery from this first peak when it comes, to be an even more laboured one.
The reproduction number
The basic reproduction number is the mathematical term used by epidemiologists to quantify the rate of infection of any virus or illness. Experts have calculated that, when left unchallenged, the reproduction number (or R0) of COVID-19 is around 2.5. This means that each infected person will, on average, pass the virus to 2.5 other people, leading to exponential spread.
Lockdowns, public awareness campaigns and social distancing measures are intended to lower the R0 to below 1.0, thereby in time reducing and eventually halting the spread of infection. To induce a decline in infections as rapid as a 2.5-times increase the number would need to be lowered to 0.4 (or 1 divided by 2.5). A preliminary study by a team at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has calculated that in the UK the present R0 of the virus is around 0.62 which, if accurate and provided it is maintained, would mean the virus is set to diminish, albeit at a slower pace than that of its original acceleration.
There is more good news too. The British-American-Israeli Nobel laureate biophysicist Michael Levitt, who runs a laboratory at Stanford University in California, points out that the R0 of a virus naturally reduces over time due to the tendency of people to move within finite social circles, thereby increasingly restricting the number of new contacts that it will encounter. Coupled with a deliberate strategy of social distancing, this will further drive down spread.
So far so good, if indeed anything can be said to be good about a global pandemic which at the time of writing has already claimed the lives of over a hundred thousand people. But the challenge now is how to lift restrictions and to begin to resume something even approaching normality without the rate of infections once again increasing rapidly. Neither the needs of the economy nor human nature will allow life to placed on hold indefinitely.
One imagines, or at least hopes, that any significant relaxation of the restrictions will inevitably follow a reduction in new infections to a far more manageable number than is the case at present. When it does happen, the objective must nevertheless be to maintain new infections at a level below R1. Without achieving this, a second wave is inevitable.
The lesson taught to us by the initial spread of the virus is a sobering one. Then contagion was taking place in one city in one country a very long way from home, and yet within little more than a month it had broken out to engulf the entire planet. Now, with 240 separate nations all fighting the virus in varying stages of development, any measures taken by any one country to keep it from returning to within its borders would need to be extraordinary.
Learning from experience
On the other side of the coin, we have at least in this very short space of time gained valuable knowledge and experience. Where western countries, with the partial exception of Germany, failed to test, trace and track down the pathogen with sufficient rigour when it first descended upon us, we will hopefully be better equipped to do so the second time around. Mobile apps are already being developed which will assist us in this process, although it would be a negation of duty to allow our policy to rely solely upon their use to the exclusion of other, complementary strategies.
One imagines that what limited travel is permitted to resume between nations will, for the time being at least, be subject either to testing passengers - including returning British nationals - for the virus at the point of departure or of entry, or else to implementing an obligatory period of quarantine for all travellers. Without such drastic action, it is difficult to see how a programme of tracking and contact tracing can possibly hope to succeed.
More than anything else there will need to be global co-operation, and co-ordination, at every level. A global pandemic can only effectively be tackled through joined-up, global strategic action. Even one rogue nation refusing to play by the rules will risk throwing every nation's efforts into jeopardy.
Antivirals and vaccines
Ultimately, we can only hold off the threat as best we can pending the arrival of a vaccine. Before this happens though it well may be that antiviral drugs, whether new or re-purposed, will change the game by allowing the illness arising from infection to be treated before it becomes serious or even fatal. Removing the grim unpredictability of Coronavirus will allow the world the luxury of enjoying something like a normal existence without too much fear.
Lifting lockdown needs to be regarded as the first stage of the end game, not as an ill-planned panic measure driven by the needs of the economy. Handled correctly, it offers a second chance to rectify the errors which allowed the virus to break out in the first place. To be caught napping the first time around was clumsy, to do so again would be absolutely unforgivable.