Words By Rob Barrie

With a vaccine for coronavirus on the horizon, an ever-growing group of scientists argues whether lockdown really is the best route into a post-pandemic world.

During another surge of COVID-19 cases, the government of the United Kingdom once again, reluctantly, reached for England’s ‘off-switch’. Shops brought down their shutters, pubs closed their doors and aeroplanes were banned from the runways. As the country solemnly headed towards its second national lockdown in a year, the Government remain adamant that this is the most efficient course of action. But as an eerie sense of déjà vu engulfs the nation, the grim reality of the consequences of this economic strangle becomes clear for a second time. There has always been opposition to the concept of ‘locking-down’, but this time it’s not just from anti-lockdown and anti-mask protestors, it’s from the very sector that is closing in on the vaccine for the virus. 

Having gone through the motions of a lockdown already in March this year, the nation is, simply put, wiser. We are more informed and now have access to both data and knowledge. It is these statistics that a group of scientists studied carefully, and came to the conclusion that a full-scale, national lockdown is potentially not the optimum approach. Thus, at the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a declaration was created. Its mantra, devised by infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists, was clear: ‘focused protection’. The evidence that supports it, they say, is clear.

A deserted Liverpool Street Station during COVID-19 lockdown, Image Credit: Wikimedia

 The Great Barrington Declaration isn’t particularly well-known. It’s not being circulated in mainstream media outlets, but it is a strategy that is gaining momentum throughout the world, most noticeably in the scientific and medical communities.  12,115 medical and public health scientists, 35,237 medical practitioners and 638,925 concerned citizens have all put virtual pen to paper.  

In effect, the Great Barrington Declaration is similar to the regional lockdown strategy utilised in September by the UK government which targeted particular virus hot-spot areas. But instead of cities being selected, the Declaration suggests locking down based on age or risk status – anyone included in a high-risk category should shield.  A recent study in The Lancet, a medical journal, suggests that around 78% of the global population are not at risk of developing severe COVID-19. It is on this basis that the Great Barrington Declaration formed its recommendation of ‘focused protection’. Age is one of the most important factors for average mortality rates from the virus. Throughout many countries, the chance a 20-29-year-old dying from COVID-19 is approximately 0.2%. A 50-59-year-old has a 1.3% chance of dying from the virus. If you are 80 years old or above, it’s 14%. The Declaration’s recommendation is that the degree of ‘shielding’ should be applied relative to one’s age. It also takes into account high-risk individuals, such as those who suffer from pre-existing medical conditions, who would be asked to protect themselves too.

The AIER states that initiating a national lockdown, on all individuals regardless of their relative risk, is producing devasting effects on public health. Lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health are just some of the effects the Declaration’s founders state are occurring during a lockdown. A study by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) found that there has been an increase in cases of child abuse, with an increase in stress on parents and caregivers and a reduction in normal protective services being significant causes. Mental health amongst the younger age groups has been one of the worst affected areas. In a study of 3000 adults, it was found that suicidal thoughts had increased as a direct consequence of lockdown, with those aged 18-29 seeing the sharpest rise. 1 in 4 adults of the survey also reported moderate symptoms of depression. Indeed, this problem is not just isolated to adults. The complete cancellation of children’s sport has potential implications for their mental health.  Arguably, there are further issues but research into these is not widespread enough. 

The Declaration, devised by professors from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford, represents a counter-strategy originating from the scientific, objective standpoint. A standpoint that is gaining hundreds of signatures a day. It must be noted, however, that not all scientists share the same view. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), who advises the UK government, proposed a quick, short-acting national lockdown, known as a “circuit-breaker”, as opposed to a full, national lockdown. If the UK government had acted on the advice from its scientific advisors, the country might have arguably avoided a second lockdown, as it would have been applied earlier in the surge of cases. It is interesting to see two opposing schools of thought from the science sector, but both ultimately attempted to avoid a common scenario – a full lockdown.

The long-term aim of the declaration is to restore as much of normal life as the pandemic allows until the vaccine is released, either late this year or early next year. The AIER hope that during this timeframe, immunity will continue to develop amongst the population. As more of the low-risk population contract the virus, more will develop antibodies. Recent studies have shown that this immune response, which involves our bodies producing ‘memory’ T-Cells that can remember the virus and help manufacture antibodies to fight it, is strong in many individuals; this bodes well for potential longer-term immunity. A study that was published just this month suggests that COVID antibodies can last up to 6 months. Immunity also has the added benefit of reducing vaccine demand which allows the supply the UK has bought to be given to the elderly, high-risk individuals and also to front-line staff. It is naive to assume any sense of normality can resume quickly, but the aim of this scientific strategy attempts to reintroduce some routine to life.

It is generally accepted amongst scientists that coronavirus will not be completely eradicated – at least not for a long time. Like many viruses, it will simply become part of the already large pool of ailments that dominate our microbial landscape. This air of inevitability is what seems to be at the forefront of the minds of the AIER. They are relying on basic epidemiological theory that indicates that lockdowns do not reduce the total number of cases in the long run.  Indeed, throughout history, lockdowns, on their own, have never led to the eradication of a disease. In the words of the virologists at the heart of the Great Barrington Declaration, lockdowns simply delay the increase of cases for a finite period.

The Great Barrington Declaration is therefore clear in its recommendation of focused protection as opposed to nationwide protection. Grave concerns about physical and mental health impacts have catalysed this counter-strategy put forward by infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists. Question marks still remain how it will be implemented and, equally, whether the traction it  has built up will be enough to sway government officials. Though popular, it still has some way to becoming a mainstream talking point. The scientists at the heart of the declaration are hopeful, however, that their devised route out of the pandemic is the most scientifically optimum one possible. 

Perhaps, though, the most important contribution from the scientific community will be from the researchers in the laboratories of pharmaceutical companies in America, Germany and now the UK, who have all announced their own vaccines to battle coronavirus. Working tirelessly through the pandemic, they are part of the force, along with the selfless front-line healthcare workers, that shall change the tide against COVID-19 and, hopefully, usher us into a post-pandemic world.

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