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Reuters Newsmaker: Prof. David Heymann, infectious disease expert, discusses exit strategies and his optimism over the world’s collaborative approach to COVID-19

Gregg Wirth  Content Manager, Legal Executive Institute

Gregg Wirth  Content Manager, Legal Executive Institute

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the globe and countries see their major cities become virus hot spots, some conversations nevertheless are turning toward exit strategies.

In a Reuters Newsmaker interview on Friday, Axel Threlfall, Reuters Editor-at-Large, spoke (via online video hook-up) with David Heymann, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Prof. Heymann also chairs a panel of experts that advises the World Health Organization (WHO) on emergencies like the current pandemic.

Threlfall noted that as many countries continue to take the necessary steps to control further transmission of the virus and “flatten the curve” of newly infected to avoid overwhelming their medical personnel and hospitals, other countries where the virus may have already peaked were considering exit strategies.

As these countries discuss how best to bring themselves out of lockdowns and quarantines, Threlfall asked, does any one country currently have a workable exit strategy?

Unfortunately, Prof. Heymann said, this pandemic grew in some countries so quickly that thoughts of an exit strategy — which ideally should be considered before going into the problem — were not considered much beforehand if at all.

Now, any unlocking must be done carefully to avoid sparking new outbreaks, Prof. Heymann explained, adding that many countries are observing what has happened in Italy and Spain, as the surge of patients there overwhelmed the two countries’ medical infrastructures, and deaths from COVID-19 spiked. “Other EU countries are seeing this and want to be careful that it doesn’t happen to them.”

“It’s really a difficult decision for any government or medical professional to make — you don’t want to end protections and restrictions too early and have a surge in cases.”

That said, Prof. Heymann noted that China has already begun to unlock various sectors of its economy, such as heavy industry and some small businesses. Singapore and South Korea are carefully looking at similar options as well. Indeed, a slower, well-thought-out step-down from the pandemic is a good example for the rest of the world to follow, Prof. Heymann suggested.

It’s important, however, for any country considering easing its restrictions or lifting its quarantines to conduct a risk assessment, using data and guidance that is now being provided by the WHO. “It’s most important to understand that the best ways to protect society and individuals is to continue physical and social distancing where it’s required, to wash your hands, and, if you feel sick, wear a mask,” he said. “The goal continues to be to try to decrease transmission.”

Prof. Heymann said that the countries that most strongly instill in their population the importance of protecting yourself and others are the countries that are winning this fight. “It’s really a difficult decision for any government or medical professional to make — you don’t want to end protections and restrictions too early and have a surge in cases.”

A more collaborative world

Despite the human and economic devastation this pandemic has brought on a global scale, Prof. Heymann said he is optimistic when he sees how well medical knowledge and technology is being shared around the world, despite the politics, and how the world’s medical community has come together to collectively develop methods to try to fight this disease.

Again, the ability for governments to now directly access WHO data that allows each country to do its own risk assessment and then decide how it wants to deal with that risk is a big part of this new collaborative mindset.

“What’s happening is that the world is experiencing something it never has before, and I think the world will be forever changed by it,” Prof. Heymann observed. “There is a great mobilization now to share and collaborate, and I hope that continues after this crisis abates. If so, I think the world will be a better place.”

Threlfall then asked about herd immunity or vaccines that may be able to protect people from COVID-19.

Prof. David Heymann

Such talk, Prof. Heymann suggested, may be a little premature. “When you have a new virus, you don’t know the destiny of that virus — where it will go, and what the immune characteristics of it will be — I think that’s a long way away from being determined,” he said. “The focus now should be on controlling transmission.”

As for vaccines, Prof. Heymann explained that there are a lot under development now, and some studies are even making their way from animals to being able to soon be tried out on humans. “I think there are some great advances in development.”

Once we move on then to licensing and production of vaccines, Prof. Heymann said he hopes we don’t have the problem that we’ve had with past vaccines in which they were not readily available to much of the affected population. “Still, there are many issues to be resolved before any vaccine can be introduced to the market.”

Prof. Heymann said the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak may have taken much of the world by surprise, but as a global society, we need to learn from that. “I think overall the world wasn’t mentally prepared for this pandemic,” he said, adding that hopefully now, countries understand the vital importance of shoring up their defensive stockpiles of equipment again. And when the pandemic ends, he noted, we should not let funds and commitment dry up, like it did with past outbreaks.

“I think a return to good resilience planning could be a big positive of this situation.”

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