Welcome to Naturally Speaking’s blog series on COVID-19. This fourth episode is about the ‘exit strategy’: the lifting of lockdown measures related to the COVID-19 virus. This is a particularly challenging topic, as there are so many unknowns! That being said, if we don’t answer all your most pressing questions, please feel free to post them in the Comments section below – we’ll do our best to respond. We’ll also aim to provide any updates as advice and knowledge evolves. Click here to switch to the more complete version of this post (with extra details and links).
Disclaimer: Some of the guidance refers specifically to the situation in the UK, although most of the content is relevant regardless of where you hail from.
Q: Will our lives go back to ‘normal’ once the lockdown measures are lifted?
A: The virus is and will still be out there, even after the full lockdown ends. Thus, it will be important not to immediately restart our ‘normal’ lives as if nothing has happened: doing that would increase the chance of being hit by a second wave of the virus. For this reason, enhanced surveillance and control will be critical over the coming months.
Q: How can we maintain control of the virus after the lockdown?
A: In order to keep virus transmission in check and to avoid a second major wave of spread, multiple types of control measures will be required. First, we should always keep in mind that hygiene and social distancing will still be the most important tools that we have in the fight against this virus. For example, always keeping our hands cleaned – using sanitizer in public spaces and washing hands when returning home – and maintaining a distance of 2 meters (6 ft) from other people, as recommended by the government. This will most likely result in a re-organisation of stores, museums, and more generally, all the places that could lead to a gathering of people. Moreover, protective equipment such as masks/face covers may help to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to others. A major emphasis will also need to be placed on testing and contact tracing.
Q: Will we have new tools to control the spread of the virus?
A: According to a recent study, manual contact tracing isn’t sufficient on its own. This is because the COVID-19 virus spreads so quickly and easily, including via asymptomatic cases. Thus, it might be necessary to find other ways to monitor the situation. Amongst the options that have been brought forward is developing an App that can build a memory of all the contacts you’ve been in touch with, to facilitate ‘real-time’ contact tracing. In fact, the App would immediately notify all the people who were in contact with an affected person, helping them to self-isolate and thus stop the spread of the virus. To this effect, a collaborative initiative by Apple and Google has already led to the development of a decentralized contact tracing tool. Thus, we’ll certainly have new tools to fight the Covid-19, but everything needs to start from surveillance and control.
Q: Is the vaccine the best exit strategy?
A: Vaccination is likely to be the most feasible strategy to control this pandemic in the long-term. However, its development is not straight-forward, and only the first hurdle in a much longer process to ensure safety and lack of side effects (see Testing and Treatment). As we described in this earlier post, therapeutic options (anti-viral treatments) may offer an additional option in the interim. In encouraging news, development of a vaccine against the COVID-19 virus is moving forward at unprecedented speed. The first clinical vaccine trial in the UK is already underway at the University of Oxford, and major funding has also been secured by Imperial College London to move their vaccine towards clinical trials as well. Globally expanded scientific cooperation will certainly help to speed up the process. For instance, the European Medicines Agency is also exploring several vaccine options, with two clinical trials underway. The Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has compiled a complete list of the many COVID-19 vaccine candidates, which will track them as they move through the development pipeline. However, for the vaccine to stem the spread of the virus, it will be necessary to vaccinate the vast majority of the population, which will certainly take time.
Feature image is original artwork by PhD candidate Chiara Crestani, ©2020.