On Friday, the University of Oxford released a paper which suggests that over half of the UK population could have already contracted – and now be immune to – coronavirus. However, many experts have queried the validity of the findings, and the researchers themselves find them far from conclusive. So, is the media frenzy around the study doing more harm than good?
The study itself focuses on qualitative data, drawing on the number of fatalities in the UK and Italy. This is unsurprising given the relative deficiency of testing in both countries. Plus, many people have been tested positive yet were asymptomatic or had ‘mild symptoms’. The study explores many different scenarios based on the proportion of people who die of the disease.
Many experts have queried the validity of the findings, and the researchers themselves find them far from conclusive.
Overall, the researchers conclude an infection rate of between 36-68% among the UK population before 19 March. This percentile range is unquestionably large, but we must remember that this is an early model with quite limited data. The study itself says that 36-40% of the population could have been infected if the mortality rate was 1%. Conversely, the infection rate could be as high as 68% infectivity with a lower rate of 0.1%.
However, many epidemiologists take issue with this study. Firstly, it is based solely on deaths. Given that most deaths relate to people with underlying health issues, it is quite bold put all the deaths into the same category. This is especially so when some hospitals are better equipped to deal with the virus than others. And that’s not to dismiss the influence of broader socio-economic factors.
The percentile range is unquestionably large, but we must remember that this is an early model with quite limited data.
In addition, the populations of the UK and Italy are far too big a group. Also, Dr Simon Gubbins shrewdly points out, they are not single entities. So, to make definitive studies at this stage is foolhardy. Instead, we should pinpoint groups such as the city of Wuhan and the Diamond Princess cruise ships. The Italian town of Vò, where testing was done en masse, would also be an effective use of research resources.
Indeed, the testing of these populations shows that many people have been asymptomatic or merely showing mild symptoms. In addition, anecdotal reports from otherwise healthy people who have had it tells us that this is a bit more than your typical cough and cold.
Anecdotal reports… tells us that this is a bit more than your typical cough and cold.
The data points more towards Imperial College London’s more pessimistic report. Imperial suggest that roughly 80% of people will have had COVID-19 by the end of summer, with the number of deaths reaching half a million. Yet, we are still in the early stages of this global pandemic.
Certainly, the Oxford paper provides an important piece of data and research to the current global debate. As Professor James Naismith, the Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at the University of Oxford said: “The paper calls for widespread serological testing and this will be necessary to test the paper’s hypothesis…
At this moment, nothing in this paper calls for or could be used to justify any change in current policy. That is unless we all follow the current government advice on social distancing, the UK will see many thousands of deaths that could have been avoided.”
So, as Prof. Naismith himself implies, we should not overreact. The Oxford Paper is far from conclusive, and the best thing to do is to follow government guidelines. Remember: this virus is still budding and does not discriminate. In time, and with the mass production of tests to check the presence of antibodies, the paper will be proven or disproven.
At the moment, nothing in this paper calls for or could be used to justify any change in current policy.
But now is not the time for taking those risks.
Image Credits: A girl wears a protective mask to cover her face, to fend off Coronavirus. https://www.vperemen.com/ @ Wikimedia Commons