Coronavirus: Siouxsie Wiles begs Kiwis to stop meeting their neighbours for wine at the end of driveways

One of New Zealand's top scientists is begging Kiwis to stop holding social gatherings at the end of their driveways.

Under the pandemic alert level 4 lockdown, we're expected to maintain a distance of at least two metres between us and anyone not in our household 'bubble', in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The viral disease had killed about 70,000 people and infected a confirmed 1.27 million worldwide as of Monday morning (NZ time). 

"I've seen people bending the rules slightly where they're meeting up with friends at the bottom of their driveways, staying two metres apart and having a glass of wine. Please, don't do that," microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles told radio station More FM on Monday morning.

Research into the virus has found its primary method of transmission is through droplets expelled in coughs and sneezes, but it's becoming increasingly clear to scientists that asymptomatic transmission is also possible. That's when someone who's not showing any symptoms - and may not even know they're infected - manages to pass the virus on.

Dr Wiles said the science behind how the SARS-CoV-2 virus - which causes COVID-19 - spreads is still being figured out.

"There are some instances where outbreaks have happened - there was one at a choir where everybody maintained their distance, but they were all singing. Singing is an act where you could imagine droplets would be spread further than two metres. 

"But if you are a person who is infected and don't know it, you know, you could be meeting at the bottom of your driveway with your neighbours, and that could be a way everyone could get infected. 

"Do Zoom or Skype or something instead. Please, stay in your home." 

Early reports said there was no evidence the virus was airborne - which means it could hang around in the air after being expelled by an infected person, like the ridiculously infectious measles virus. The World Health Organization as recently as March 27 said there was still not sufficient evidence to say it was. 

But in a recent article in Nature, published on Friday, scientists said there was growing evidence it might be. 

"In the mind of scientists working on this, there's absolutely no doubt that the virus spreads in the air," aerosol scientist Lidia Morawska at the Queensland University of Technology told Nature. "This is a no-brainer." 

And a study published on March 26 in medical journal JAMA found droplets from sneezes and coughs could travel much further than the recommended social distancing of two metres. Droplets were measured up to eight metres away, in fact. 

Scientists told Nature even if it is airborne, there's still no evidence how many viral particles would need to be inhaled for an infection to take hold, nor how long a person would need to be exposed - and finding out would be unethical "given the disease's severity". 

The US-based Centers for Disease Control has recommended Americans start wearing masks in public, as are scientists Nature spoke to. The problem is, Dr Wiles says, there aren't an unlimited number of masks to go around.

"My real concern about saying 'everyone go and get facemasks' is that it takes them away from the people who actually need them - our essential workers." 

How long might the lockdown last? 

The Government hasn't given any indication yet whether the lockdown will be loosened or extended at the end of the initial four-week period. New cases continue to be reported, but they're not growing exponentially and remain mostly linked to people who have returned from overseas. 

As infected people can take a couple of weeks to show symptoms, it's hoped the second fortnight of the lockdown will see growth slow, which would be a good sign community transmission of the virus is limited.

Siouxsie Wiles.
Siouxsie Wiles. Photo credit: The AM Show

Dr Wiles says people need to be patient and not start to slack off.

"This is certainly the time when people can become complacent. What we're seeing is a steady number of cases, and that's actually despite the number of tests going up. I'm surprised we haven't had more cases - this is really good, I'm really pleased. 

"What we want to see now of course is the numbers start to drop as the effects of the lockdown come in. That's really going to be over the next few days, seeing how that looks.

"If people slack off, we will be in for a shock. Before we went into lockdown, I was not able to sleep. I was so worried about what was going to happen, watching what was happening overseas. About two days into lockdown, [I began] sleeping properly. We are doing all of the things to ensure that we're protected and we come out of this - in terms of lives saved and things - as well as possible. That's what's important for all of us now. 

"I know that this is really hard and the lockdown is going to be difficult for so many people financially, mentally, physically - but the option of not doing a lockdown would have been so much worse."

She plans to spend the rest of Monday going over the new studies published at the weekend, and translate their findings into words the rest of us can understand perhaps on Tuesday.