A highlight from Coronapod: Does England's COVID strategy risk breeding deadly variants?

Nature Podcast
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Nature's take on the latest developments speaking to experts around the world about research. We're entering a new era new strategies. There's some new knowns and we've got a vaccine hello and welcome to corona pod a baker and joining me. This week it's veteran science reporter phil. Bowl fell howie. I'm very well. Thank snow so usually on corona pod. We try to talk about stories which as global as possible. We know that people from all over the world listen to current apart and yet this week we're going to focus very much on the uk. Which is where fell. And i both and that's because much of the scientific world is currently looking at the uk because of the way our government is approaching public health policies and phil. You've written a story about this week. Can you tell me what it is that we're talking about here. Yes so you could. Government's plan back. In february was that they would be a four stage opening up or e relaxation of what was then a full lockdown country. And we're now about to take step four of the program. It was going to be taken on the twenty first of june but it had to be delayed because uk is having this very rapid spread of infection at the moment because of the delta variant of the virus but the government has decided that nevertheless the is right to relax essentially all remaining restrictions on distant saying at mosque wearing and so forth and to return they say some kind of normality in the country. Asa time when in fact. I've just seen today that. The uk has the highest rate of infections in the world. There are something like forty thousand or more new infections being recorded each day. So it's let's say at least a very odd situation to be in that. Under circumstances that previously would have meant. We needed to enter lockdown whereabouts. Do exactly the opposite an open up the country and so this is really an experiment and people from other countries are going to be working very closely to see how it plays out indeed and there's a lot that need to unpack care around. Why scientists a so interested. I suppose the logic behind way. The government is taking this decision. Now we should point out the people of outside of uk slightly complicated country. It's a kingdom of several countries. So this is the uk government the central government. The uk's made this decision. However these changes apply to england specifically the scottish northern irish and welsh governments also have autonomy over their public health policies to an extent so much of what we're gonna discuss in terms of restrictions applies to england specifically and so in terms of what those distiction lifts are. Tell us what is is the final stage of unlocking. I suppose because there is a degree of freedom and inverted commas. And i'm going to use very advisedly head already exists in terms of being able to mix people. What's this last stage that they've announced in england yet. We're very much not in lockdown and haven't been for the past several weeks but there are still some businesses that have restrictions on that haven't been able to open up fully and certainly places like theaters and nightclubs. And so on where. There's a lot of potential a lot of people close together that being restrictions on them or they've had to remain closed restaurants to have restrictions on them and the has still been the requirement of the one point five meter social distancing in any sort of public spaces unin particular wearing of mosques have been mandated in public spaces. Those restrictions are all going so essentially. There is there is almost nothing now to legally prevent people from resuming life as before from going pack nightclubs from going to music concerts and hitters and so forth and for traveling on public transport without any legal obligation to wear masks. So the notion is that this is a kind of return to normality and yet most people scientists included would expect that return to not allow to happen at a time when case rates were low. Vaccinations rates were high. There are sort of four tests that the government has laid out as the tests it needs to pass to be able to lift those restrictions and yet that doesn't appear to be the case. Well the thing that is making this even conceivable at all is the vaccines because the uk has signed a very successful rollout. Vaccinations for a while. It was a head of pretty much older. The rest of the world in the speed with which vaccinations happening in the population now. A lot of areas of the world have more or less caught up but it still owe now to stage where only just over fifty percent of the population has had a double dose of the vaccine Something like sixty eight seventy percent have about a single dose and we know that these vaccines seem to offer good protection against getting serious kovin so hospitalization for example with the astrazeneca that saying that seems to be just over ninety percent protection with a double vaccination against hospitalization with covet. So that's pretty good and certainly without that it would be utterly inconceivable to be able to open this time when we have these levels of infection in the winter. Things terrible hospitalizations were at a very high level. There were lots of deaths happening. Those statistics are at least ten times lower. Now there's a ten times lower rate of hospitalization so you know it very clear that the ranked teams have severely weakened the link between infection and hospitalization but nevertheless some vaccinated people will be infected and there are plenty of unvaccinated people dicky younger people. And there's a lotta sprayed happening in people under eighteen schoolchildren and there's big discussion about whether they should be vaccinated but not at the moment and so there's still a lot of potential for virus to spread and that's what we're seeing moment absolutely. We talked last week on current upset about whether or not kurna virus in the future could become a disease of the young for very much. This reason i'm interested to know we mentioned in the beginning that scientists are looking at this to some extent like a bit of experiment. This decision to relax. Public health policies at a time infections of soaring really doesn't follow the kind of playbook that we would expect from public health experts. What is it the scientists to particularly looking at here. Why is it that they see this as kind of an experiment. Well one issue that's being discussed is whether the idea is that because young people are at a much lower risk of getting seriously ill from nineteen. It does happen among the young but it's much lower one concern that scientists have. Is that actually. The plan is to achieve herd immunity to reach this point. Where enough of the population has got immunity in one way or another so that the virus doesn't spread with a mixture of vaccination for those who've got it already and natural infection for those who haven't and who seem less likely to be seriously affected by it. If so i mean that's a strategy that i don't think anyone has advocated or try before the idea that you would permit perhaps even encourage natural infection of disease like this in order to achieve her immunity. You know just something. Unprecedented on many scientists think that that is a deeply ethical thing to do. And i think it's worth mentioning this potential sort of herd immunity strategy which again there's not what the government has specifically said is what some people are speculating that they might be doing. It's not clear whether or not herd. Immunity is something that can be reached for this virus and so whether or not scientifically valid plan even though it may not officially be the plan is also something that same question. It absolutely is yes. We have seen for example. Some regions of brazil had a very very high rates of population infections. Sort of seventeen seventy percent and still no sign of herd immunity being reached. And it's really not clear that there is a threshold where you will get to that. Of course fundamentally it doesn't surprise me. The scientists in public health experts are concerned about the possible consequences of letting the virus run especially younger people especially given the sort of lack of knowledge that we have about things like long covert about how it might impact people more broadly but there is another concern which is potentially considerably more worrisome than think actually a quote in your story that says something like you know compared to deaths and infections which oversee this is vastly more worrying. And that's when we take into account the possibility of new variants. Can you tell me what is the concern is. Yeah i mean this is potentially rarely scary some of these new variants that delta barrington. It seems probably. The lambda barron was first. Seen in peru have a greater ability than earlier forms of the virus to evade the faxon's the teams are less effective against them.

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