'It feels like being in a bad disaster movie':

'It feels like being in a bad disaster movie':

1,000 scientists and academics have written to the Government saying that Ireland is lifting its coronavirus lockdown too soon. Picture: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

GERRY KILLEEN was one of 1,000 academics and scientists across Ireland who signed a letter to the Government in recent days calling for lockdown to be extended.

Professor Killeen recently arrived in Cork from Tanzania, where he lived for 17 years studying viruses, including malaria, dengue fever, and Zika.

Speaking to The Echo, he warned about the inevitability of a second wave of Covid-19 if Ireland relaxes lockdown measures too soon.

“The virus defines the rules of the game for all of us and it hasn’t gone away. There’s still too much of it around,” he said.

Ireland’s roadmap for lifting lockdown suggests that in every phase the number of new daily cases should halve until we reach zero per day.

However, Prof Killeen said that Ireland’s testing system only confirms 25% of cases and that, as things stand, Ireland is in a similar situation to March, when the April surge in cases of Covid-19 was expected.

“It’s not much different from where we were in March, when we knew the big surge in April was coming,” he said.

“As soon as you take the lid off that, even if the cases are going down, like they are at present, you launch yourself immediately into a second wave that’s as big as the first at least,” he said.

Prof Killeen said that this prediction was based on the optimistic assumption that Ireland will make it through all phases of lifting lockdown without having to go back a step.

Covid-19 coronavirus testing in place at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Covid-19 coronavirus testing in place at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

“That’s not what is going to happen,” he said.

“People have asked me, in simple terms, what I expect to happen.

“There’s nothing that scares me in phase one, but the wheels will start to squeak; we will start to see little clusters popping up in places we didn’t see them before,” Prof Killeen said.

“In phases two and three, the wheels will start to wobble and we’ve seen that in many countries. I think 11 countries or so have had to reimpose restrictions.

“Once you get into phase four, the wheels fall off and you’re back into exponential growth.

“You’ll then have to reimpose lockdown, so we’ll be back to lockdown anyway.”

Had lockdown measures been put in place in Ireland earlier, the country could have had similar experiences to New Zealand and Australia.

“We could have been in the days where we could have come out, opened the pubs and restaurants, and played hurling and rugby and everything, but restrictions weren’t put in place in time,” Prof Killeen said.

“Never make the same mistake twice, but we’re about to do that,” he said.

“We’re about to dig the financial hole and epidemiological hole twice as big as it already is.

“We will find ourselves back in the same situation again.

“How much damage do we do by being slow learners?” he asked.

People arriving in cars at the Covid-19 test centre at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork in March.Picture Denis Minihane.
People arriving in cars at the Covid-19 test centre at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork in March.Picture Denis Minihane.

“If we follow this plan, there is no question about there being a second wave.”

“The only question is how big and how fast will it be.

“A lot of that depends on the situations that will be made in the next three weeks.”

Asked when lockdown should end, Prof Killeen said: “That depends on the data, which really needs to be followed to decide when to lift lockdown.

“We would probably be looking at somewhere between two and four months from today, if we were to really go after it.

“Two months is doable,” he said.

“It’s easier to maintain morale when you get down to zero new cases a day and you give people an end date.”

“There is no end date with this current plan; it’s just saying we have to live with this thing and I’ve lived with my fair share of unpleasant infections.

“If we could all just knuckle down and make exceptions for essential services, we could be on a zero count by some time in August,” Prof Killeen said.

“Then, if it stays at zero cases, we could be back to something that looks like normal life by September.

“That will not be the case if we go with this current plan: This is a recipe for disaster. It feels like being in a bad disaster movie,” he said.

Prof Killeen said that Covid-19 is made up of a “terrifying” formula, so that it is very difficult to eradicate. “It has the transmission route of the common cold, an infection fatality rate not far behind malaria, and it’s stealthy, like Zika,” he said.

“If immunity to this virus is similar to other coronaviruses, then it could be prone to endemic epidemic patterns. When it’s endemic,” Prof Killeen said, “it means there is not a steady rate of infection all the time, but that there’s a few quiet years with a small rate of infection, and then, as immunity slows, you can see spectacular outbreaks again, similar to dengue fever.

“I have teaching slides of what dengue epidemics look like and there are photos of people piled up on the street outside emergency rooms.”

“In terms of this coronavirus, that endemic pattern is unknown territory and I pray to god it remains unknown.”

The warning signs were there from an early stage, but they were not heeded.

“On January 30, the Lancet fast-tracked a fantastic paper from the Chinese and it was published with the warnings loud and clear,” Prof Killeen said.

“In early March, I put down my daily work, which is malaria, so not light reading by any means, to check the news about this virus,” he said.

“As soon as I went through my checklist of four red-alert areas, I knew we were looking at a global pandemic.

“It took me a day to sit down, digest it, and get past the panic,” he added.

“That was March 2.

“On March 3, I wrote an email to my colleagues in Tanzania, warning them about it,” Prof Killeen said.

A man wearing a face mask in Cork in March. Pic: Gerard McCarthy
A man wearing a face mask in Cork in March. Pic: Gerard McCarthy

“As soon as I got more evidence and I realised that this virus was going to spread, it was going to walk through airports, walk into hospitals, into care homes and into homes and nobody would know, that was the time to start ringing the bell and screaming ‘iceberg’.

“On March 6, I started writing emails that were passed on by colleagues and friends of mine to the high levels of the HSE,” he said.

“By mid-March, there had been no use of these.”

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