Looking Up In the U.K.

Great Britain is a little ahead of the U.S. with regard to the COVID-19 virus: it got there sooner and they have more per capita fatalities than we do, but a similar order of magnitude. The London Times headlines: “NHS now likely to cope with coronavirus, says key scientist.”

The virus death toll could end up being “substantially lower” than 20,000 with most of the fatalities in people who would have died later this year anyway, a government adviser has said.

Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College scientist whose research precipitated tougher government measures last week, told MPs: “It [the deaths of those who would have died anyway] might be as much as half or two thirds of the deaths we see, because these are people at the end of their lives or who have underlying conditions.”

This is a key point. When the dust settles a year or two from now, it will be interesting to see how many total excess deaths actually occurred in 2020. The number may be quite a bit lower than most assume. In Italy, reports indicate that anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 and dies is listed as a Wuhan virus casualty, even though that person may have been, for example, in a cancer ward at the time.

He said that through a combination of enforced social distancing and a nationwide scramble to set up thousands more intensive care beds, he and his colleagues were now “reasonably confident” that the health service would cope with the crisis.

“We think that in some areas of the country ICUs will get very close to capacity but we won’t breach them at the national level,” he said, predicting that the worst of the first wave was likely to pass within three weeks.

The major downside risk is economic:

But, he added, there would be a cost. Thanks to the stringent measures used to save the health service from disaster, “we will be paying for this year for many decades to come in terms of economic impact”.

“Many decades” may be stretching the point, but the basic idea is right, I think.

British authorities have acknowledged that locking down the country for a year is unacceptable. It sounds like the goal is “to hav[e] it over by the summer”. Which is a little later than President Trump’s Easter hope, but in the ballpark.

“The challenge that many countries in the world are dealing with is how we move from an initial intensive lockdown . . . to something that will have societal effects but which will allow the economy to restart.”

He added: “That is likely to rely on very large-scale testing and contact tracing.” By following up the people who have been in contact with the infected this could allow local outbreaks to be controlled and “maintain infections at low levels indefinitely”, he said.

Paul emphasized this point during our VIP Live show tonight. South Korea seems to have had great results with its policy of early testing and aggressive contact tracing to quarantine not the whole country, but those who have been exposed to the virus. It is presumably too late for such a policy in, say, New York, but it may not be too late in other areas of the U.S.

Ultimately, though, he said: “The long-term exit from this is clearly the hopes around a vaccine.”

Yes, but that will take a long time. Vaccines need to be tested extensively because they have the potential to cause neurological damage. I think a more immediate hope is that medicines that already exist, or can be quickly developed and tested, will be brought to bear. Advanced medical technologies are being used to analyze the COVID-19 virus and identify existing, already-approved medicines that might be effective. I believe there are several dozen that could be in that category. (Fish tank cleaner is not among them, contrary to recent “news” reports.)

Scientists are rushing to analyze the virus and identify potentially helpful therapies. They can act fast, and they are; let’s hope that the inherently slow-moving federal bureaucracy doesn’t slow them down.

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