Prolonged periods of lockdown cocooning the public from germs could leave people dangerously vulnerable to new viruses, a leading epidemiologist has warned.
Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford, fears intense social distancing could actually weaken immune systems because people are not exposed to germs and so do not develop defences that could protect them against future pandemics.
“It’s becoming clear that a lot of people have been exposed to the virus and that the death rate in people under 65 is not something you would lock down the economy for,” she says. “We can’t just think about those who are vulnerable to the disease. We have to think about those who are vulnerable to lockdown too. The costs of lockdown are too high at this point.”
We spoke to Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford and head of the team that released a study in March which speculated that as much as 50% of the population may already have been infected and the true Infection Fatality Rate could be as low as 0.1%.
In her first major interview since the Oxford study was published, she goes further by arguing that Covid-19 has already passed through the population and is now on its way out. She said:
On antibodies: • Many of the antibody tests are “extremely unreliable” • They do not indicate the true level of exposure or level of immunity • “Different countries have had different lockdown policies, and yet what we’ve observed is almost a uniform pattern of behaviour” • “Much of the driving force was due to the build-up of immunity”
• “Infection Fatality Rate is less than 1 in 1000 and probably closer to 1 in 10,000.” • That would be somewhere between 0.1% and 0.01%
On lockdown policy: • Referring to the Imperial model: “Should we act on a possible worst case scenario, given the costs of lockdown? It seems to me that given that the costs of lockdown are mounting that case is becoming more and more fragile” • Recommends “a more rapid exit from lockdown based more on certain heuristics, like who is dying and what is happening to the death rates”
On the UK Government response: • “We might have done better by doing nothing at all, or at least by doing something different, which would have been to pay attention to protecting the vulnerable”
On the R rate: • It is “principally dependent on how many people are immune” and we don’t have that information. • Deaths are the only reliable measure.
On New York: • “When you have pockets of vulnerable people it might rip through those pockets in a way that it wouldn’t if the vulnerable people were more scattered within the general population.”
On social distancing: • “Remaining in a state of lockdown is extremely dangerous” • “We used to live in a state approximating lockdown 100 years ago, and that was what created the conditions for the Spanish Flu to come in and kill 50m people.”
On next steps: • “It is very dangerous to talk about lockdown without recognising the enormous costs that it has on other vulnerable sectors in the population” • It is a “strong possibility” that if we return to full normal tomorrow — pubs, nightclubs, festivals — we would be fine.
On the politics of Covid: • “There is a sort of libertarian argument for the release of lockdown, and I think it is unfortunate that those of us who feel we should think differently about lockdown” • “The truth is that lockdown is a luxury, and it’s a luxury that the middle classes are enjoying and higher income countries are enjoying at the expense of the poor, the vulnerable and less developed countries.”
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