Minerva Series answers your questions on the Science of Coronavirus Crisis

Posted in: Doing Public Engagement

On Friday 29 May 2020 we hosted the second of our digital Minerva Series Panel Discussions which brings together experts from across the University of Bath to help understand the issues around the coronavirus crisis.

Making sense of the coronavirus crisis

Hosted by Brad Evans, Professor in Political Violence in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies, the series previously explored the political and social impacts of the pandemic. The focus of the second discussion was on the science of the coronavirus - what the virus is, the progress on creating a vaccine, and how behavioural control measures work to stop the disease with Dr Ben Ainsworth, Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Dr Andrew Preston, Reader in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, and Dr Asel Sartbaeva, Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry. If you missed either of these discussions, you can view recordings of these events on YouTube.

With over 250 people joining us, the events have been well received by audience members:

‘As a member of the public, I would like to say thank you to all contributors. I have learnt and understood more about COVID 19 from this lecture than any of the messaging or information that has been in the media so far.’

Thanks to having such an engaged audience we were unable to answer all of the questions asked during the one-hour time slot. For this reason, we decided to pass on unanswered questions from our last discussion to the panel and have included their responses below.

Questions from the audience

What is the possibility that no viable vaccine will be found? is it 0%? What will the world resort to in terms of solutions? 

Andy Preston: The number of vaccine projects underway (>100) makes me very positive that several vaccines will be available for COVID-19. What is unclear is when they might be available, and how effective they will be. Even if eradication of the virus isn’t possible, I think we will have vaccines that prevent disease, which is a major improvement on where we are now.

In terms of personal psychology/behaviours, from an academic point of view, do you think leadership behaviour may have a significant impact on keeping all the population aligned? 

Ben Ainsworth: Studies have shown that trust in leadership is directly related to how well the public adheres to the behaviours they are being asked to maintain. Similarly, social norms (what society informally thinks is acceptable as ‘following the rules’) is also very important. So, our leaders must be seen to adhere to the guidelines (setting a good example) and also maintain the public’s trust. Similarly, people are motivated to adhere to rules better if ‘we are all in it together’, rather than being told what they should/shouldn’t do.

If the antigens on the virus will mutate due to antigenic variability, how can we be sure the future potential vaccines introducing 'old antigens' will prevent us from getting infected? 

Andy Preston: The vaccines under development will protect against this current ‘round’ of infection. It is possible that if SARS-CoV2 remains circulating in the human population over years, and vaccination is required to continue to control disease, then vaccines will need to be modified to account for changes to the virus. This is the situation with seasonal flu vaccines. It is unlikely full retesting of each modified vaccine will be required, data from the initial vaccines will enable assessment of the effectiveness of modified vaccines.

Do we have any insight into why males seem more vulnerable to the worsening of the condition, reflected in deaths in the UK? 

Andy Preston: A current idea is that sex hormones can affect both the susceptibility to infection and the immune response, with males being more susceptible, and at greater risk of suffering the hyper-response that causes severe disease.

If we have locked down nursing homes, had more protective clothing, and checked people quicker do you think we could have avoided the terrible loss in this sector? We all knew older people were at risk. 

Andy Preston: This will be one of the many questions asked in reviews of the response to COVID-19, but almost certainly, the answer will be yes.

Sunlight is said to attack the virus. Is this proven? 

Andy Preston: Ultraviolet light can help to inactivate viruses. However, how efficient this is for COVID-19 is unknown. It is very difficult to translate lab studies to the situation in the real world. For example, how would you estimate the strength of sunlight on different days in different locations, and also to account for the many different surfaces on which the virus might be found?

To what scale are vaccination programmes currently carried out - are the proposed initial ideas concerning carrying out such widespread vaccination a world-first logistically, or are there previous situations which can be applied to approaching this potentially devastating problem? 

Andy Preston: There are several global, regular vaccination programmes, for example, the global childhood vaccinations administers vaccines to around 125 million infants each year. Flu vaccines are large scale vaccine programmes, as have been polio eradication programmes. However, there has not been an attempt to vaccinate the entire global population in a single programme that has been envisaged for COVID-19. The joined-up, global perspective of COVID-19 vaccination will help, but it still represents an unprecedented public health undertaking, so it is likely to take many months to achieve significant levels of vaccination in each region.

Given that SARS, MERS, and even Spanish flu "faded away" what chance of COVID-19 fading away in the short to medium-term? 

Andy Preston: COVID-19 has the dangerous mix of high transmission with significant levels of asymptomatic carriage (people becoming infected but showing no signs of it) but with sufficient virulence to cause serious levels of disease. Although the fatality rate is much lower than SARS or MERS, the much higher levels of transmission have resulted in much greater numbers of cases. Spanish flu faded away only after causing millions of deaths. I think vaccination will be implemented before we find out if it fades away.

Has enough been done in China to prevent another pandemic? 

Andy Preston: If this is asking to have measures to ban the dangerous mixing of wildlife and humans taking place that we think led to the introduction of SARS-CoV2 into humans, then I hope this will be one of the lessons learnt, and all countries will need to look very carefully at practices such as deforestation or intensive farming that encroach into populations of wildlife that could be potential reservoirs of disease.

The next discussion will focus on the Economic and Business impacts of the virus and will take place on Friday 26 June at 2 pm. You can register to attend via Eventbrite.

Posted in: Doing Public Engagement


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