Nobel laureate Peter Doherty concerned about lockdown relaxations in India
Nobel laureate Peter Charles Doherty has expressed concern about India and other densely-populated countries relaxing lockdown norms to limit the spread of coronavirus disease Covid-19. At the same time, he has also described a complete shutdown as “an economic and social impossibility”.
Doherty, who is with the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Doherty Institute, University of Melbourne, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1996 for his discovery of how the body’s immune system distinguishes virus-infected cells from normal ones.
In an exclusive email interview with news agency PTI, he said that the number of coronavirus cases will rise.
“If it was purely a matter of hard science, everywhere should stay locked down. But that’s pretty much an economic and social impossibility,” Doherty said.
The expectation, he said, is the numbers will rise and limiting spread will depend on people acting responsibly and the capacity for rapid response and extensive contact testing. “And in a densely populated country like India I think that it will be very difficult,” the nobel laureate said.
The number of Covid-19 cases in India has been rising rapidly and now stands at 173,763 including 4,971 deaths, according to the Union health ministry data on Saturday morning.
A nationwide lockdown, imposed on March 25 to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease, has been extended thrice, with the fourth phase due to end on Sunday, May 31. However, the government has been gradually easing restrictions to re-start the economy.
Doherty said there is no alternative to a lockdown, not “till we have effective vaccines.”
“There is no other option other than closing borders. South Korea, for example, conducted massive, intensive testing and contact tracing in a wealthy country with a very disciplined population. Otherwise, not till we have effective vaccines.”
However, he added that he personally doesn’t see the point of closing borders for people coming in if there’s already a high incidence of disease in the community, “unless it’s to avoid the need to care for them and use scarce hospital beds”.
With no cure for the disease in sight yet, scientists and governments around the world are doubling down to develop a drug or a vaccine for Covid-19. Most, however, acknowledge that a vaccine may not be available before at least a year.
Doherty, too, says that the earliest time frame for an effective vaccine “going into large numbers of people” is nine to 12 months.
“If all goes well with testing, we could know if some of the candidate vaccines are both safe and effective as early as September/October. Then, rolling a vaccine out will depend on the type of product and how quickly it can be made, put in vials and so forth,” Doherty told PTI in an email interview from Melbourne.
However, a front-running Covid-19 vaccine candidate being developed in China is expected to be available as soon as the end of this year, according to a report published in the official Wechat account of the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission.
The vaccine, jointly developed by the Beijing Institute of Biological Products and China National Biotec Group Co., has completed phase II testing and may be ready for the market at the end of this year or early next year, said the report.
Doherty also warned against the use of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) to treat Covid-19, and said current and planned trials of the anti-malaria drug should be stopped.
“My understanding is that the use of the drug in severe disease is definitely contra-indicated, but it’s not yet clear whether, if taken under medical supervision, it could have some useful effect if taken early on, or as a preventive. Those trials just haven’t been done properly,” Doherty noted.
However, earlier this week the Indian Council of Medical Research has said that no major side-effects of HCQ in studies done in India and its use can be continued in preventive treatment for Covid-19 under strict medical supervision.
The ICMR’s statement had come against the backdrop of the World Health Organization (WHO) temporarily suspending the testing of the drug as a potential treatment for Covid-19 over safety concerns.
US President Trump, too, has said that he took a two-week dose of hydroxychloroquine as a preventive drug after possible exposure to the coronavirus following two White House staffers testing positive. He also got India to lift the ban on the export of the drug some weeks ago.
Another cure being tried out for Covid-19 is the plasma therapy.
Asked whether plasma therapy can be an effective treatment for Covid-19, Doherty told PTI, “We lack good properly controlled trials but, especially if the plasma has been tested for antibody levels and there’s evidence of good activity, it could be helpful. If I had the disease and was offered plasma therapy I would certainly accept, but I would not take hydroxychloroquine.”
Doherty is also very optimistic about herd immunity developing against the SARS-CoV-2 infection.
“We think that (herd immunity) will cut in and have an obvious effect when, say, 60 per cent of people have been infected. Best hope is to boost herd immunity with a vaccine,” he stated.
Herd immunity is a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through vaccination or previous infections.