Create a COVID-free tomorrow

As I write the world is going through the second wave of coronavirus infections. At times it feels as if our lives have changed forever, with no end in sight. I beg to differ, and this article explains how I see the pandemic ending.

Why did we lock down?

Many countries are being criticised for not locking down again as soon as numbers took a turn for the worse. The standard reaction of most countries’ governments was that they wanted to avoid a lockdown since this will cripple, if not destroy, an economy.

It’s cold to think someone would rather make a few more euros than save my life.

The reality is that this explanation is wrong.

Back in February and March, the world watched in horror as the number of cases rose. Some countries reacted when they already had high numbers on their hands2. In each country’s case, they locked their country down because of 1 simple line of reasoning:

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  • Since this is an unknown virus, if anyone gets it, they need to be quarantined before they infect others, and
  • Since hospitals are the best places to contain a lethal virus because it’s full of doctors and nurses, it follows that
  • If too many people get sick, the hospitals will be full and that will be catastrophic.
  • Therefore, we have to prevent people from getting sick in the first place, so let’s lock down everything until we know what on earth is going on.

It’s hard to find fault with that line of reasoning.

Through March and April, we heard lots of information about the infection rate – the R number – and the total cases each country had per day. The news was full of data about how many test kits were available, and how efficient or effective they were.

All this talk was because of that simple reason – don’t overload the health system.

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Controlling the number of infected people was never the point.

So what has the world learnt from the first wave of this pandemic? And does that line of reasoning still apply?

On the ground

During the first wave we saw how medical advice changed based on what doctors learnt as they battled with this mysterious invader.

  1. We saw how people were told to stay at home and quarantine if they tested positive, unless they had severe symptoms. This was an important change. Instead of, ‘Get to a hospital before you die!’ the advice morphed into, ‘If you don’t have major symptoms, stay home and don’t infect anyone.’ It’s clear doctors reached a point in the pandemic where they could tell if someone needed that hospital bed or not.
  2. We saw how the death rate changed too. Taking information for the UK and Czechia, I can see that the death rate was higher in April in the UK than in Czechia, which matches how the 2 countries handled the issue. In September, the death rate is identical. Fewer people are dying, which means doctors are getting better at diagnosing earlier, and at curing people.
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Take a look at the data:

# of cases# of deathsDeath rate
UK (April)134 15323 22717.3 %
Czechia (April)4 0981984.8 %
UK (September)147 5927290.5 %
Czechia (September)45 6472420.5 %

Comparison of the death rate in April and September

You may wonder why I’m sure this decrease is because of doctors’ intervention. I know doctors found that patients had low oxygen levels but without symptoms of a lack of oxygen. Doctors have also found existing steroids that mitigate symptoms.
Check the references below for more information, but it’s clear that doctors learned many lessons during this pandemic.

There is a fringe hypothesis suggesting the virus is becoming weaker. It’s not impossible, but it is still fringe science as of time of writing.

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  1. We also saw how most people took to better hygiene. We’re all more aware of what we’re touching, and whether we need to wash our hands or not. We use hand sanitiser when we need to. We wear masks too.

In short, as medical advice changed the numbers changed.

And yet we’re facing a second wave.

Does all this mean nothing?

Prediction

Not nothing, no.

The numbers above are for the death rate. It’s hard to find accurate, timely and comparable data for the number of hospitalisations but some does exist.

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As early as June, UK doctors noticed that the hospitalisation rate was improving.

This means that even as the number of infected people is higher, we still have fewer people needing hospital care.

This is a good thing.

I know people have high hopes for a vaccine. We don’t know when such a vaccine will exist and we have no way of telling how it will affect us over a 10- or 20- year period. Will your 6-year old daughter have pregnancy complications in 15 years time because of this vaccine?

No one can answer that question.

This is why I don’t consider a vaccine to be a solution for the pandemic.

I predict that we will soon reach a point where the hospitalisation rate is as low as it is for influenza. For reference, the death rate for influenza is 0.1%, compared to 0.5% that we’re seeing in Europe today.

Think about that for a second.

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We reduced COVID deaths during this pandemic by an order of magnitude between April and September. If we can reduce it further from 0.5% to 0.1%, then the coronavirus will be no worse to our national health services than influenza.

Once we reach that point, COVID-19 and influenza will be the same thing:

  • Both are airborne viruses.
  • If you get either of them, you will need to stay home.
  • If you get either of them and have a complicating factor, you will need advanced medical care.
  • You can reduce your risk of infection by practising better hygiene and staying healthy.
  • If you get either of them, in a worst case scenario, you can die.

Coronavirus is still deadlier than influenza.

If you catch coronavirus, there’s a 4% chance you’ll die.
If you catch influenza, there’s a 0.1% chance you’ll die.

This is the next number humanity needs to track.

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I predict that when hospitalisations reach that point, when we no longer threaten to overwhelm the national health service, we won’t need any further lockdowns. That will be the point when the pandemic is over.

There’s evidence that some governments are focusing on the number of hospitalisations, not the number of infected people.

Or panic.

But this only holds provided we focus on the right numbers.

The number of people in hospital, and the death rate.

Because the number of infected people is a red herring.

References

  1. ANALYSIS: The danger is France’s Covid-19 strategy could fail on both counts; John Lichfield; The Local; 2020-09-06
  2. Czech Republic records highest number of active COVID-19 cases since start of pandemic; Aneta Zachová; Euractiv; 2020-03-13
  3. Coronavirus: Quarantine raises virus fears in northern Italy; Mark Lowen; BBC; 2020-20-25
  4. Boris Johnson orders UK lockdown to be enforced by police; Heather Stewart, Rowena Mason and Vikram Dodd; Guardian, The; 2020-03-23
  5. Coronavirus – United Kingdom; news.google.com; (Retrieved 2020-09-26)
  6. Coronavirus in the UK; Gov.UK; (Retrieved 2020-09-26)
  7. Coronavirus – Czechia; news.google.com; (Retrieved 2020-09-26)
  8. COVID-19 in the Czech Republic; MZCR.CZ; (Retrieved 2020-09-26)
  9. ‘Silent hypoxia’ may be killing COVID-19 patients. But there’s hope; Stephanie Pappas; Live Science; 2020-04-23
  10. Coronavirus: Cheap steroids save lives from severe Covid; James Gallagher; BBC; 2020-09-02
  11. Coronavirus: Things are getting better but no one really knows why; Tom Whipple; The Sunday Times of London; 2020-08-22
  12. Didier Raoult, France’s Dr Data, claims new coronavirus strain is ‘less dangerous’; Peter Conradi; The Sunday Times of London; 2020-09-20
  13. Influenza update – 377; World Health Organisation; 2020-09-28
  14. Declining death rate from COVID-19 in hospitals in England; Mahon J, Oke J, Heneghan C.; Centre for Evidence Based Medicine; 2020-06-24
  15. Life won’t return to normal even after a vaccine, warn scientists; Rhys Blakely; The Times of London; 2020-10-02
  16. Q&A: Influenza and COVID-19 – similarities and differences; World Health Organisation; 2020-03-17
  17. Q&A: Influenza and COVID-19 – similarities and differences; World Health Organisation; 2020-03-17
  18. Czech hospitals under pressure as coronavirus cases surge; David Hutt; Euronews; 2020-10-06
  19. Coronavirus: Brussels orders ‘code red’ shutdown of all bars and cafés; Bruno Waterfield; The Times; 2020-10-08

All references were valid and correct when this article was published. Changes to referenced websites or web pages may render some references invalid. If this is the case, please leave a comment below.


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