Enough was known about coronavirus in January to act straight away, but the response was delayed, a leading scientist has said.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said that while information about the virus was “uncertain”, action could have been taken.
At the start of January the World Health Organisation was aware of a cluster of pneumonia cases – with no deaths – in Wuhan, China, and shared detailed information with member states.
Speaking at the Imperial College London’s Abdul Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics’s (J-IDEA) symposium on a post-Covid world, Sir Jeremy said the response to the information was delayed.
I would say that at the end of January we knew enough to have acted. And we waitedSir Jeremy Farrar
He said: “The information you have early may be uncertain, but it’s enough to act on.
“I would say that at the end of January we knew enough to have acted. And we waited.
“We waited out of uncertainty, we wanted to be more certain than we needed to be.
“But by the end of January, we knew that this was able to transmit asymptomatically, that it caused a nasty clinical syndrome and a significant number of people were dying, that healthcare workers were getting sick and distant family members were getting sick when people moved from Wuhan to Sichuan, that this was going out of China into other parts of south-east Asia, that we had no diagnostics, no treatment and no vaccines.
“To me, at the time – and this is not in retrospect – I think that was enough to have acted then in ways that we delayed.”
He added that in a fast-moving epidemic, if officials delay by days, or by weeks, then they will end up playing catch-up.
“I think the lesson for me is, cope with the uncertainty, go with the information you have whilst gathering new information, and don’t get behind the curve,” said Sir Jeremy.
He added that lessons needed to be learned from the response to the pandemic to tackle future virus outbreaks.
Sir Jeremy said it is the responsibility of the generation that lives through Covid-19 not to walk away, move on to other priorities and forget about it.
He added: “I think there’s also a facile argument often put forward that there are no magic silver bullets in this… but that is not the same as saying you don’t need some bullets.
“And what we can’t do is be left vulnerable and exposed in the future without the capacity for knowing what the social interventions are – restrictions in this case have been so influential – but also not shy away from the fact that we also need financial and fiscal incentives and interventions that matter and sustain over the long term.
“But we do also need the fruits of biomedical science to deliver the diagnostics, the surveillance, the health systems, the oxygen, the PPE, of course, but also the treatments and the vaccines.
“Because if you don’t have that collection of bullets, then you’re left with effectively 19th century interventions, and we’ve got to do better than that in the 21st century.
“Whilst I’m not suggesting for a second that the vaccine is a magic bullet that will answer everything, it will be a hugely important part of how we both prevent this reverberating pandemic of now, but also how we address future potential epidemics and pandemics of the future.”
Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, who is director of J-IDEA, told the virtual symposium it was a mistake to focus too much on “fairly nominal surveillance”, for instance travellers coming into the country, on the basis of “let’s wait and see what happens”, and not standing up systematic domestic surveillance.
He added that it was a mistake in similar circumstances in 2009, but the country got away with it because the mortality rate was low.
Prof Ferguson said the issue was not exclusive to the UK, because when countries did switch to testing in hospitals in Europe in March, they suddenly realised they had a huge amount of transmission within their borders.
He said: “And we should never let that happen again.
“If there’s any sense of a virus which is spreading beyond country borders, which is transmissible from person to person, we should be looking for it in our countries, given how globally connected every European country is.”