yEremy Farrar is Director of the Wellcome Trust, former Professor of Tropical Medicine at Oxford University and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). He just published his account of the Covid crisis. Spike: The Virus v the people – In which he attacks the government for delaying the closing of last fall and describes the scientific and medical efforts that have been made in combating the epidemic.
At the beginning of the book, you say you initially thought the virus might have leaked from a Chinese laboratory. Do you reject this theory now? And is there anything China can do to end this line of speculation?
You cannot definitively determine the source of the virus. But I think the balance of scientific evidence strongly points to a natural origin, although you can’t rule out lab accidents completely. To do this, you must find an intermediate host for the animal. This can be one of thousands of different types of animals. It’s a needle in a haystack. What can China do? If she were to fully open her labs, her lab books, and all her data… but I’m not sure that would convince the skeptics. But it would be nice to have more transparency on all sides.
China delayed informing the world maybe for a month. But by January 20, 2020, public health experts had a keen sense of what they were dealing with. Why was most of the world, Especially the UK, too slow to respond?
It is clear that delays in the beginning have a greater potential effect than delays at a later time, due to the amplification effect. There was a delay in China of two to four weeks. People need to appreciate that putting together a cluster of pneumonias and saying they cause them is more difficult than you think, especially in the middle of flu season. But the response should have been faster. By late January, early February, we learned of asymptomatic transmission. In my opinion, the critical periods of February and the first two weeks of March are not used as they could have been. The world has received many false alarms over the past 20 years. We obviously had bird flu, and you could argue with Sars-1, even though Sars-1 was very lucky. I guess people didn’t really believe it could be true.
How do you think the World Health Organizationzation (who) perform?
I’ve been involved with the World Health Organization, so I should put that in context, and I’m still chairing an advisory group for the WHO. I fear that the WHO has been systematically undermined for the past 20 years. It did not have enough funding and it became a political football. She doesn’t have a police job, she has a public health job. So they are very restricted. But I would say that the advice of the World Health Organization has been good all along. Yes, they weren’t in favor of border controls, but frankly, neither was I at the time. So I think if we seek to blame the WHO, we are basically putting the blame on us.
You pretty much support Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, but is it fair to say that you think Witty is overCareful at first?
I think he was very cautious early in the end of January, in February. The reason is that he has seen a lot of other epidemics. Remember how Chris’ predecessor, Sally Davis, was criticized for overreacting to [swine flu] Pandemic 2009, Tamiflu stockpiling? I think all these past experiences color how you respond to the new threat. But in the context of 18 months, I have to say I have nothing but great respect for both of them. I think they acted with incredible dignity. They have kept the Sage together and I think they have crossed this very complex line between scientific advice and policy in a wonderful way.
You still don’t know where the government’s initial argument for herd immunity came from. How can this be neither political nor scientific Has the advisor been identified as the originator of this strategy?
I just don’t know how this happened. I don’t think it’s right to say, from anything I’ve been a part of, including regular conversations with Patrick and Chris, that herd immunity was a strategy. It never came from Sage and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a policy from Patrick or Chris. You cannot achieve herd immunity without completely unacceptable disease and mortality. Number one, you have to protect at least 80% of the population. Number two, in the first half of last year, we had no idea if there was immunity. So, with 80% of it having an infection fatality rate of, say, 1%, you’re looking at half a million people dying. It was unattainable. I just don’t know how there was this disconnect between scientific advice and what seems to be being discussed within government circles.
In mid-March 2020, you were calling for immediate government intervention. The math predicted a massive death rate, yet there was a two-week delay before the first shutdown. why?
I argued over that weekend of March 13, 14 and 15 that the UK should follow the lead of Italy and France and go into lockdown. Now we talk about shutting down as if it were normal, but not completely normal. The government is telling you you can’t leave your house? It’s just something that most of us could not have imagined before March 2020. I think this delay to March 23 was because it was impossible for policy makers to get around the meaning of the shutdown. If we closed our doors on March 13 or 14, lives would have been saved, in my opinion, without a doubt. But if I am a philanthropist, I can understand why such a harsh measure, which has never been done before, was so politically difficult. What I cannot accept are the events of September and October.
You argue that the same mistake was made again last fall. Why wasn’t there a more coordinated cry of the experts at that time?
Since 80-90% of the population has no natural immunity after the summer of 2020, the autumn wave was inevitable. Strong opinions were expressed. A sage lecturer has become very frank. Patrick and Chris held a press conference in September on their own and explained where the pandemic was heading. Their predictions at the time proved frighteningly accurate. I don’t know what more we could have done, we the scientific community, and Hakeem and Patrick and Chris. It was quite clear that the shutdown in September would have avoided subsequent waves. We could have managed from October to March 2021. A lot of lives could have been saved.
How much do you think he influenced the great Barrington? The declaration’s argument (that governments should protect the old and the vulnerable while allowing healthy young people to return to life as usual) was another shutdown discouragement?
I was never a party to the talks, but it seemed like there were meetings inside Number 10. And the government was still wondering whether the shutdowns were successful. Science works by opinion. But science must follow a scientific method and must have data attached to it that can be challenged. And I think there hasn’t been enough hard data collected for things like innate immunity. There was a statement that 60% of the population had been protected by March 2020, but there is no data behind that.
I thought about quitting Sage. Do you think you made the right decision to stay?
I’m not sure I know the answer yet. I think for now, yes, it was right to stay. I think the scientific advice from February 2021, to the beginning of July, was very influential in terms of how to lift restrictions. Instead of lifting everything up, as happened in the summer of 2020, there were phases: phase one, wait five weeks until you can see the effect, then fire up a few more things in phases two and three. I think this was a more scientifically wise approach.
Would you like to see a public inquiry prepared immediately?
I think we need a public investigation, not to blame this or that person, but because we’re going to have more of these crises. I think neglecting public health, running the NHS at efficiency limits all the time, is something we should think about in terms of building greater resilience in the system. So I think a public inquiry needs to look broadly at the events of the past five to ten years leading up to the crisis and then make the decision on the crisis. And for me, the general investigation should make sure there are more flexible systems being tested – not a square workout, but really tested. I see no reason now to postpone it.
- rises: Virus against the people By Jeremy Farrar with Anjana Ahuja Posted by Profile (£14.99). Jeremy Farrar’s proceeds from the book will go to the Cowrie Scholarship Foundation. to support guardian And Foreman Request your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply