Tuesday, 27 Oct 2020

Life should 'go back to normal' for less vulnerable people, 4,000 scientists say

Experts across the world have called for life to return to normal for those less vulnerable to the effects of coronavirus.

A new ‘anti-lockdown’ petition, which has now gathered thousands of signatures and is backed by 4,000 scientists and academics, calls for a herd immunity approach to tackling the pandemic while protecting the most vulnerable populations.

Academics from the universities of Oxford, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Cambridge, Sussex, York, St George’s University of London, Strathclyde, Leicester, Queen Mary University of London and the University of East Anglia are among experts from around the world who have signed the declaration.

They are calling for all but the elderly and vulnerable to return to life ‘as normal’ due to concerns about the long-term mental health impact of tough social restrictions.

But the so-called Great Barrington Declaration has been criticised by some medical experts who say it ignores certain aspects of Covid-19 ‘that could result in significant impacts to health and lives’ and not enough is known about the virus to guarantee herd immunity is possible.

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One academic said it omits some ‘critical scientific information’.

The declaration states: ‘As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing Covid-19 policies, and recommend an approach we call focused protection.

‘Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.

‘Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.’

It states that the ‘goal’ in fighting the pandemic should be ‘to minimise mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity’.

But Professor Jeremy Rossman, honorary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent, has said the declaration ignores growing evidence on ‘long Covid’ – where thousands of fit and young people who contract the virus have been left with debilitating symptoms months after a mild infection.

Professor Rossman pointed out that research suggests that protective antibody responses may ‘decay rapidly’ and that there have been cases of re-infection of the virus. He added that Sweden, which adopted a herd immunity approach, was ‘not able to successfully protect the vulnerable population’.

The professor said: ‘Unfortunately, this declaration ignores three critical aspects that could result in significant impacts to health and lives.

‘First, we still do not know if herd immunity is possible to achieve. Herd immunity relies on lasting immunological protection from coronavirus re-infection; however, we have heard many recent cases of re-infection occurring and some research suggests protective antibody responses may decay rapidly.

‘Second, the declaration focuses only on the risk of death from Covid-19 but ignores the growing awareness of long Covid, that many healthy young adults with mild infections are experiencing protracted symptoms and long-term disability.

‘Third, countries that have forgone lockdown restrictions in favour of personal responsibility and focused protection of the elderly, such as Sweden, were not able to successfully protect the vulnerable population.’

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, and of the University of Oxford, said: ‘The main signatories include many accomplished scientists and I read it with interest. I will not be signing it however.

‘The declaration risks the same error we have seen with the UK’s track trace and isolate scheme – one can promise a scheme that is very easy to describe but is hard to deliver.’ He added that the declaration omits some ‘critical scientific information’.

The declaration comes after the leader of the NHS in England, Sir Simon Stevens, said asking all over-65s to shield to slow the transmission of the second wave would be ‘age-based apartheid’.

It states: ‘Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practised by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold.

‘Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open.

‘Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.’

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