Britain could suffer 40,000 coronavirus deaths in the first wave of the outbreak, a leading expert warned today after he claimed the UK may be hit by up to ten bouts of the killer infection before the population develops herd immunity.
Professor Anthony Costello blasted the Government’s handling of the crisis, saying it is ‘a total mess’ and the UK has been wrong every step of the way in a scathing interview published today.
He urged Number 10 to change tack as quickly as possible, calling on ministers to urgently ramp up testing capacity and stop relying on a draconian lockdown to suppress the life-threatening disease.
Without changing its stance, Professor Costello – who fears the UK is still trying to achieve its now-abandoned herd immunity strategy – warned Britain ‘will face further waves’ of COVID-19 until a vaccine is developed.
Giving evidence to the Commons Health Select Committee, he said: ‘This wave could see 40,000 deaths by the time it’s over.
‘If we are going to suppress the chain of transmission we all hope lockdown and social distancing will bring about a large suppression of the epidemic so far.’
Professor Anthony Costello blasted the Government’s handling of the crisis, saying it is ‘a total mess’ and the UK has been wrong every step of the way
Hopes of Britain developing herd immunity quickly were also dealt a blow by a Dutch study that found just three per cent of the population have developed antibodies.
Top scientists have warned at least 60 per cent of the population needs to have got infected to dramatically slow the spread of the virus – 40million Britons.
Antibodies are made by the immune system in response to an infection. Blood tests looking for the substances can tell if someone has fought off a virus.
Professor Costello, a former senior official at the WHO, told the Daily Telegraph: ‘We won’t get herd immunity if what the latest models show are correct.
‘In the UK we would have to get through another eight to ten waves to get to herd immunity.’
Herd immunity was first floated as a possible strategy early on in the outbreak but it was abandoned within days after huge backlash.
WHAT IS HERD IMMUNITY?
Herd immunity is a situation in which a population of people is protected from a disease because so many of them are unaffected by it that it cannot spread.
To cause an outbreak a disease-causing bacteria or virus must have a continuous supply of potential victims who are not immune to it.
Immunity is when your body knows exactly how to fight off a certain type of infection because it has encountered it before, either by having the illness in the past or through a vaccine.
When a virus or bacteria enters the body the immune system creates substances called antibodies, which are designed to destroy one specific type of bug.
When these have been created once, some of them remain in the body and the body also remembers how to make them again. This provides long-term protection, or immunity, against an illness.
If nobody is immune to an illness – as was the case at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak – it can spread like wildfire.
However, if, for example, half of people have developed immunity – from a past infection or a vaccine – there are only half as many people the illness can spread to.
As more and more people become immune the bug finds it harder and harder to spread until its pool of victims becomes so small it can no longer spread at all.
The threshold for herd immunity is different for various illnesses, depending on how contagious they are – for measles, around 95 per cent of people must be vaccinated to it spreading.
For polio, which is less contagious, the threshold is about 80-85 per cent, according to the Oxford Vaccine Group.
It involves a large proportion of the population being allowed to be infected with the virus to achieve mass-immunity and prevent future waves.
Herd immunity is normally achieved through vaccinations – when a high percentage of the population is vaccinated, it is difficult for diseases to spread and they fizzle out.
But it’s a controversial method for a new infectious disease because if it achieved by allowing people to get infected, it means people will have to die.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said around 40million people would need to catch the virus to build up Britain’s immunity.
Scientists estimate the death rate to be around 0.5 per cent, which means if 200,000 will die as a result of achieving herd immunity.
Currently a fraction of that – 13,729 – have succumbed to the disease in the UK.
Herd immunity also relies on people not being able to be struck down again, which scientists warn has not yet been proven definitively.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock was forced to address Sir Patrick’s herd immunity claims to confirm the controversial strategy was ‘not our goal or policy’.
Startling models then saw the Government change tack after scientists warned that up to 500,000 people could die without any action.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson eventually announced a lockdown on March 23, which mirrored measures taken in China, as well as Italy and Spain.
Professor Costello, director of University College London’s global health team, fears Number 10 is still seeking herd immunity.
He told The Telegraph: ‘They keep talking about flattening the curve, which implies they are seeking herd immunity.’
Flattening the curve is the term given to controlling an outbreak, spreading cases out over a longer period and easing pressure on overwhelmed hospitals.
Professor Costello, former director of maternal, child and adolescent health at the World Health organization, said Downing Street has to change policy.
Startling models from Imperial College London saw the Government change tack after scientists warned that up to 500,000 people could die without any action
Graph shows the UK’s average daily coronavirus deaths for the previous seven days, based on official figures. The dip at the end shows the numbers falling for two days – the first drop since the crisis began. Although it could be a sign of numbers plateauing, Chris Whitty yesterday said he expected a rise in deaths today as officials catch up with a lag in reporting over Easter
ONLY 3% OF POPULATION HAVE HAD THE VIRUS, DUTCH STUDY SUGGESTS
A study of Dutch blood donors has found that around three percent have developed antibodies against the new coronavirus, health authorities said on Thursday.
The number is an indication of what percentage of the Dutch population may have already had the disease – and thus could have some level of immunity to the virus.
It’s too soon to know if the UK or US population will have similar rates of immunity to that of the Dutch people.
But if that were the case, 1.8million of the UK’s 60million population and 9.84million of the US’s 328.2million population would have already fought the disease.
The figures are a low blow after British scientists have warned at least 60 per cent of the UK population needs to have got infected to dramatically slow the spread of the virus – which is 40million.
The head of the Netherlands’ National Institute for Health (RIVM), Jaap van Dissel, disclosed the results during a debate with parliament.
There are 29,214 confirmed coronavirus cases in the Netherlands, but only the very ill and healthcare workers are currently being tested.
Recorded cases account for 0.17 percent of the Scandinavian nation’s population.
Blasting the current strategy, he told the newspaper: ‘What we should have done is crush the epidemic and then keep it down.’
Professor Costello is set to give evidence to the Commons Health Committee today, where he is expected to warn of repeated waves in Britain.
In the same session, Mr Hancock will face questions from MPs over the response to the coronavirus crisis in Britain.
Yesterday Number 10 announced Britain’s lockdown would be extended for at least another three weeks despite growing alarm at the economic consequences.
Professor Costello accused the Government of being a ‘one-club golfer’ for relying solely on a lockdown working.
He said: ‘It should be combined with testing, tracing and digital apps that have been used so successfully in South Korea.’
South Korea bucked the global trend and decided against a lockdown to contain its COVID-19 outbreak – which peaked in February.
Officials at the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have only recorded 10,000 cases of the deadly virus. They tested thousands more suspected cases.
Britain has promised to carry out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April – but figures show it is currently carrying out fewer than 20,000 swabs daily.
Data last night showed only 18,665 tests were performed on Wednesday, despite the claim from the PM’s spokesman that the UK can conduct 35,000 a day.
The UK gave up on testing all suspected patients early on in the outbreak, to the fury of the WHO which said the pandemic cannot be fought ‘blindfolded’.
And ministers also gave up on tracing infected patients’ close contacts, allowing the virus to spread effectively unchecked.
Research for MailOnline by Redfield & Wilton found 80 per cent would not feel safe going back to everyday life at the moment
Around half the public are now resigned to the draconian ‘social distancing’ curbs being in place into June
A graph showing the number of new infections in various countries, starting on the day they first recorded five infections. The graph shows a rolling average, meaning it shows trends in the data rather than exact figures. The Y-axis is scaled due to the large difference in numbers between worst-hit countries such as USA and Britain, and countries which were less badly hit, such as Australia and South Korea. In an evenly-scaled graph, the worst-hit countries’ readings would show a much steeper curve
LOCKDOWN FOR ANOTHER THREE WEEKS AT LEAST
Dominic Raab last night declared that coronavirus lockdown will stay for at least another three weeks despite growing alarm at the economic consequences.
The Foreign Secretary confirmed the public’s ‘efforts are starting to pay off’ but draconian curbs cannot yet be lifted after he chaired a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee.
He said scientists believe transmission in the community is ‘almost certainly’ below the level at which the outbreak will peter out, although there is still spread in hospitals and care home.
‘Based on this advice the government has decided the measures must remain in place for at least the next three weeks,’ he told the daily Downing Street briefing.
The government is under massive pressure to set out an ‘exit strategy’ from the social distancing measures, after its own watchdog warned GDP could plunge by a third and two million people lose their jobs. It came as the UK announced 861 more deaths from the coronavirus, taking the total number of victims to 13,729.
Instead of an exit plan, Mr Raab last night merely offered five criteria for when the lockdown could start being loosened.
Ministers admitted their lockdown ‘exit strategy’ will not be unveiled for at least two weeks today amid claims they are dodging decisions because Boris Johnson is off work.
Professor Costello also said the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – Number 10’s main advisory panel – ‘have got most of it wrong’.
It comes as the Government is under growing pressure to reveal the identities of the dozens of experts who sit on the group.
MPs have warned that the lack of transparency could harm public confidence in the official response to the crisis, which has already attracted criticism.
Government sources said members of the group and its committees had received death threats, fuelled by Britain’s response to the pandemic.
It comes as Dutch researchers yesterday found that only three per cent of the population has developed antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The number is an indication of what percentage of the Dutch population may have already had the disease.
Ministers in the European country – home to 17million people – said it means several hundred thousand people may have already been infected.
One study of the town at the centre of Germany’s outbreak found as many as 15 per cent of people may have already been infected with the virus.
Other research has showed that many recovered coronavirus patients have barely-detectable signs of past infection.
A Chinese study last week revealed a third of past patients have very low levels of antibodies in their blood, which could make them hard to test for.
British experts said the finding explains why the UK has repeatedly delayed rolling the tests out to the public, despite promises they were in the pipeline.