UCC expert says Covid-19 could be eliminated from Ireland over summer

UCC expert says Covid-19 could be eliminated from Ireland over summer
A pedestrian wearing a face mask while shopping in Cork city.Picture Denis Minihane.

A NEW modelling analysis by an infectious disease expert at University College Cork suggests that eliminating Covid-19 from Ireland over the course of the summer is possible and would require only a modest amount of additional effort.

Professor Gerry Killeen, the AXA Research Chair in Applied Pathogen Ecology at UCC says Ireland’s recent rates of reduction in cases could lead to zero cases and a subsequent complete exit from lockdown within weeks.

The UCC professor has warned however that repeatedly imposing, lifting and re-imposing restrictions to merely suppress the epidemic until it hopefully burns itself out may prove a dangerous gamble.

Prof Killeen said that as Ireland begins to emerge from lockdown, it should look to countries with ambitious national strategies to crush the curve of their epidemics such as China, Korea, Japan, and Australia.

“With their approaches to eliminating the virus with sustained and uninterrupted restrictions, their timelines to that exit point are about three months and New Zealand is already there,” he said.

“Countries like Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom, where daily incidence rates have been slowly falling, may well have achieved 80% suppression of transmission.

Professor Gerry Killeen
Professor Gerry Killeen

“Their epidemics could slowly fizzle away if current measures were maintained, so why would these countries not build upon their successes by pushing even just a little further past this crucial tipping point?

“Faster progress towards elimination would obviously be better and these timelines could be shortened if we were to push ahead now with even more stringent and effective restrictions.”

Recently published models of Covid-19 transmission and containment from Prof Killeen and colleagues predict that Ireland’s recent rates of reduction in cases could lead to zero cases and then complete exit from lockdown over the course of the remaining summer.

On the other hand, it is suggested that repeatedly imposing, lifting, and re-imposing restrictions until the epidemic could “hopefully” burn itself out through herd immunity, could see it lingering at great cost for many years.

“It’s likely that Covid-19 could establish itself as a permanent disease with unpredictable waves every few years,” Prof Killeen said.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin arriving for the Cabinet meeting at Dublin Castle. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Taoiseach Micheal Martin arriving for the Cabinet meeting at Dublin Castle. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The UCC professor noted that incomplete suppression of the epidemic will also have significant economic impacts.

“On the economic front, incomplete suppression means extending the damage over years rather than months, asking businesses to spend more time operating under restrictions that push them into the red,” he said.

Prof Killeen said that it is essential for policy-makers, health professionals, and the general public that as many people as possible understand the stark consequences of the choices ahead of them.

“Eliminating the virus within months would require only a modest amount of additional effort, compared to merely suppressing the epidemic and allowing it to persist for years, decades or even indefinitely,” he said. “As in any competitive sport, playing a long drawn out defensive game against an unpredictable, fast-moving, adaptable and unrelenting opponent is asking for trouble.”

The UCC infectious disease expert has also warned that once Ireland has eliminated the virus, even the slightest easing of travel or importation controls could cause a rebound.

“Complete elimination of the virus can only be sustained by preventing reintroduction from outside of the country,” said Prof Killeen, adding “which means isolation of all incoming travellers, except those coming from countries that may be certified as free of local transmission by WHO in the future. Otherwise the implications of such an uncontained rebound scenario are essentially identical to doing nothing in the first place.

“At a time when so many decision-makers are considering tempting justifications for relaxing unpopular lockdown restrictions, it is now vital that the governments and citizens of every country, instead, embrace intensified containment, elimination, and exclusion efforts.

A woman wears a face mask in Cork city to protect herself against Covid-19. Picture: Andy Gibson
A woman wears a face mask in Cork city to protect herself against Covid-19. Picture: Andy Gibson

“Unless we all respond constructively to the recent WHO appeal for genuine national unity and global solidarity it appears unlikely that we can collectively defeat the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Prof Killeen’s findings have been recently published in the journal Infectious Disease Modelling and the European Journal of Epidemiology and come as latest figures show the number of cases of Covid-19 in Cork is continuing to rise.

The latest data shows 25,527 cases of Covid-19 across the country since the beginning of the outbreak, including 1,541 cases in Cork.

Last month Prof Killeen, together with Prof Anthony Staines from DCU and Dr Tomás J Ryan from Trinity College Dublin, put his name behind an online petition urging the governments on the island of Ireland to take “resolute actions” to “crush” the Covid-19 curve.

In an open letter, they highlighted how the island of Ireland had managed to bring the epidemic under control because of a timely response here and encouraged the two governments to take actions to suppress the pandemic.

Action they recommended include public health measures such as the use of masks and “sensible” restrictions on travel.

They argued that eliminating the virus represents “the most scientifically sound strategy in terms of public health and economics alike”, and the said that “given political leadership, an agreed and scientifically sound strategy, and co-operation from our citizens — this can be done, and done in weeks, not in months.”

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