Don’t count on a vaccine.
That was the advice of infectious-disease expert Dr. William Haseltine in a wide-ranging Reuters Newsmakers interview about the COVID-19 crisis with Reuters Global Managing Editor Alessandra Galloni. Dr. Haseltine is known for his groundbreaking work in fighting cancer and HIV/AIDS, and is currently Chair and President of ACCESS Health International.
The message that a foolproof vaccine for COVID-19 may never be developed also happens to be the very same warning Dr. Haseltine gave to an audience of scientists in 1986 about the prospects for an HIV/AIDS vaccine. “I was booed off the stage for that,” Haseltine recalled in the interview. “But we still don’t have a vaccine for AIDS. We don’t know for sure that a [COVID-19] vaccine won’t be developed, but I can say with the same conviction — don’t count on it.”
No slam dunk
Much like the AIDS virus, COVID-19 attacks the human body through mucus membranes, which are notoriously hard to protect, Dr. Haseltine explained. “Like the common cold, SARS, and MERS, this is a coronavirus,” he said, adding that diagnostic protocols and effective drug treatments have been developed for coronaviruses and are also being developed for COVID-19. “But every time we’ve tried, we’ve failed develop vaccines for these diseases,” he noted. “It’s not a slam dunk.”
Dr. Haseltine’s cautionary assessment of the current COVID-19 response and its implications comes at an inauspicious time, when states in the U.S. and countries all over the world are attempting to re-open their economies, even though the virus is far from contained. Alarmed that people around the world aren’t taking the disease or its contagiousness seriously enough, Dr. Haseltine also cautioned citizens to be hyper-vigilant about their hygiene in the coming weeks.
“I’m not saying we can’t re-open — we can — but we have to do it very carefully,” he said, explaining that as long as there is any virus around, people should regard themselves and everyone they meet as infected and take the proper precautions. “That’s the only safe assumption you can make,” he said. “And don’t assume that if you’ve been infected, you’re protected.”
Should we be following China’s example?
As for the global effort to contain the coronavirus, Dr. Haseltine says it’s a mistake to think of the search for a cure as some sort of race or competition. “We are one people, the human race — and as long as one person in the world is infected, we are all at risk.”
Asked to rank countries in terms of their response to the coronavirus, Dr. Haseltine ranked the United States, Russia, and Brazil as the countries with the worst responses, and China, South Korea, and Hong Kong/Taiwan as the countries with the most effective responses.
“We can control this disease without a drug,” Dr. Haseltine insisted, citing China as an example of a country that is reporting almost no new cases. “In China, they’ve done massive contact tracing to identify infected people, and they also do what we don’t, which is forcibly isolate people who are infected.”
According to Dr. Haseltine, the difference in countries that have effectively combatted the virus is their experience with SARS and MERS. “Those countries understood what a pandemic could do to their economies, so they took measures to prevent it. We didn’t.” Now, he says, the United States is discovering — or more precisely, re-discovering — that “there are huge consequences to not taking these things seriously.”
He also emphasized the global nature of the pandemic, and the importance of countries around the world working together to combat it. “What’s great about now is that our science and technology are amazing, and people around the world are sharing knowledge quickly.”
Indeed, China is farthest ahead in the global effort to develop treatments and a possible vaccine. Instead of blaming China, the United States should be working more cooperatively with Chinese scientists, he suggested, adding that one problem we could help the Chinese with is that they don’t have any more patients to test.
“I suggest we cooperate,” he said. “We have the most patients in the world.”
Summer retreat? Not likely
Dr. Haseltine also counseled against believing rosy predictions for the virus to retreat this summer, or for a return to normalcy or a speedy economic rebound anytime soon. “In Mumbai, India, it is extremely wet and hot, but the virus is spreading like crazy there,” he observed. Coronaviruses in general tend to retreat in the summer, he said, but COVID-19 is a particularly virulent and resilient strain, “so don’t count on hot weather.”
The idea of herd immunity was another canard Dr. Haseltine sought to dispel. “There’s no such thing as herd immunity for this disease,” he said, because “people who have had it are getting re-infected.” To those who point to Sweden as an example of a country that has remained relatively open in the hope of eventually developing herd immunity, he compared Sweden’s response to Denmark’s. “Sweden has a very high infection rate compared to Denmark,” he said, noting that in the long run, “I think you’ll find Sweden is a bad example.”
Even if a vaccine never arrives, Dr. Haseltine said he is confident that scientists around the world will develop more effective treatments for the symptoms of COVID-19, and that these treatments will eventually be available worldwide — but it will take time. “The slow part is testing,” he said. “You have to make sure it’s safe.”
Americans, stay home
In the meantime, he said, citizens around the globe — and particularly in the United States — are going to be discovering what happens when authorities don’t respect Mother Nature enough to take pandemic threats seriously, and they don’t take adequate measures to prepare for and prevent an outbreak.
If the U.S. had listened to its experts and taken the proper precautions, “no more than twenty people had to suffer from this,” he said. Instead, he estimates that United States might have to take on as much as $12 trillion in debt to avoid catastrophe, while people’s livelihoods are ruined, and many more will die unnecessarily.
Dr. Haseltine did not have great news for people who are itching to travel anytime soon, either. “It will be a long time before travel is back to where it was — that’s the sad reality,” he explained. Americans, especially, should get used to staying home. “Countries don’t want Americans,” he added. “We’re the last country on the planet that is going to be able to travel again.”