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Number of coronavirus cases in Northern Ireland could be as high as 3,000, says Belfast virologist Bamford

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Expert: Dr Connor Bamford

Expert: Dr Connor Bamford

Expert: Dr Connor Bamford

A leading virologist has said there could be as many as 3,000 coronavirus cases in Northern Ireland.

This figure dwarfs the number of confirmed cases in the region, which was 62 as of Monday afternoon.

Dr Connor Bamford, a research fellow at Queen's University Belfast, said that because only those with underlying health conditions or those requiring hospitalisation are being tested, the true number of cases will be much a higher than the official total.

He warned, however, that the number of confirmed cases is likely to increase substantially in the coming weeks as faster and easier testing methods are introduced.

It comes as the Government’s chief scientific adviser said around 55,000 people in the UK have coronavirus and the aim is for fewer than 20,000 people to die from it.

Sir Patrick Vallance said the number of predicted deaths was “horrible” and there would still be a huge amount of strain on the health service from Covid-19.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Dr Bamford said estimating the reality of the coronavirus outbreak is possible by looking at the number of deaths it has caused.

"We don't actually know how many people are infected, because for one we are not testing everybody at the minute. Because we’re only testing a small proportion of people, we know that the number of cases is likely higher," he said.

"It takes about three weeks to die from this virus and the mortality rate could be as low as 0.6%. For there to be one death you might need 200 cases, so we know that three weeks ago, because we haven't seen a death now, there was less than 200 cases.

"If there were, for instance, 150 actual cases three weeks ago, right now we are probably looking at around 3000 cases or slightly less."

While there have been 62 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Northern Ireland, in the Republic there have been 292 and two deaths to date.

On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced drastic new measures to tackle the spread of the virus, including social distancing.

He also advised people to avoid pubs, clubs and theatres and stop all non-essential contact and travel.

Under the new measures, anyone living in a household with somebody who has a persistent cough or fever must now also isolate themselves for 14 days.

Testing will also play a role in the end of this virus, after all how can we know it's gone if we don't test for it? Connor Bamford

While some have called for increased testing, Dr Bamford explained there is not the capacity to do this in Northern Ireland. He also said the safest option is for those who are displaying symptoms to assume they have the virus and self-isolate.

"Over the next two weeks the spread of the virus will get faster, so we should really just be limiting the testing to those who just need to confirm they have the virus, that is those who would be the sickest and needing prioritised," he said.

Dr Bamford said this is likely to change in the near future as faster and easier testing becomes available, however the public should not be alarmed by an increase in confirmed cases.

”Hopefully we will see an increase in the number of detections, because what we know from what the World Health Organisation (WHO) is saying and from other countries that have controlled the virus, is that testing played a very big role in slowing the spread down," he said.

"Testing will also play a role in the end of this virus, after all how can we know it's gone if we don't test for it?

"Testing is really important in the hospital so that those with the virus can be separated for other patients who don't have it. Outside the hospital testing is vital in tracking the virus and figuring out the particular areas affected."

Belfast Telegraph