Coronavirus: COVID-19 vaccine a 'fantasy' - controversial epidemiologist Simon Thornley

A Kiwi epidemiologist who thinks the country should give up trying to eliminate COVID-19 says we shouldn't be pinning our hopes on a vaccine.

New Zealand's strategy of elimination - clamping down wherever the virus rears its head in an effort to prevent wider outbreaks - has been hailed by global health officials, and seen us record some of the lowest per capita infection and mortality rates in the world. 

For more than 100 days there were no detected cases of the virus in the community, a golden run that had New Zealanders enjoying more freedoms than most others. That all came to a screeching halt earlier this month, with the detection of four new cases in Auckland that couldn't be - and still haven't been - linked to a known source. 

University of Auckland specialist Simon Thornley, who has long advocated against locking down to stop the virus, says it's time to accept it's here to stay and ditch the lockdowns. He praised the few hundred people who at the weekend who gathered in downtown Auckland - mostly without masks - to protest against the level 3 restrictions.

"Elimination as a long-term strategy is just simply not realistic," Dr Thornley told Magic Talk on Monday, who said the move from level 3 to 2 - even as new cases are confirmed - was an admission from the Government it's used the wrong strategy. 

"Even though the Government hasn't been saying it overtly... it's going to be the future." 

The protesters were escorted down Queen St by police, who made no arrests. They gathered near Britomart, carrying signs reading "masks don't work" and "no more lockdowns". 

Some signs alluded to debunked conspiracy theories, such as the false claim made by Jami-Lee Ross' Advance NZ party that the Government is planning forced vaccinations for Kiwis. Another referenced 1080 pesticide, and one person even had a sign calling Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern a fascist. 

"The movement against ongoing lockdowns is growing in Auckland," Dr Thornley tweeted.

Ardern said elimination was still the goal. Epidemiologists use the word 'elimination' differently to eradication - the latter is the absolute wiping out of a virus worldwide, like what happened to smallpox. Elimination is more localised, and accepts that there will be occasional outbreaks, usually brought in from overseas - like what New Zealand has done with measles.

"Even the [World Health Organization] now, Dr David Navarro, is telling New Zealand, 'Congratulations, you've done well - but actually the future is to go Sweden's way.'"

Dr Nabarro appeared on Magic Talk last week, and praised New Zealand's efforts thus far.

"You can show the rest of the world that the key is going to be to get on top of the virus and hold it at bay, because the virus is the enemy, people are the solution. I personally believe New Zealand is giving the rest of the world a lot to learn from."

But questioned how long the public would put up with changing alert levels.

"I think for all countries, the real approach we've got to aim for is that the public is able to reduce the spread of this virus through behaviour, behaviour that is adopted everywhere, and then that means the virus is at bay," he said.

"You do everything possible to avoid the lockdowns, and in that regard, I think comparison with Sweden and with other countries that are able to get going again without major lockdowns, that's the right comparison and that's the goal of the future."

Sweden took a much more relaxed approach to combating the spread of COVID-19 than its peers, and has suffered much greater rates of infection and death as a result. It's economy has also been hit hard, though not as much as nations like France and Spain, which implemented lockdown in response to widespread outbreaks they're still fighting to this day. 

Dr Nabarro said there's a high level of trust between the Swedish population and the government, which is their more relaxed approach - largely based on social distancing - hasn't been a bigger disaster. 

There's still no evidence even Sweden, or hard-hit areas like New York which serology testing suggests has had millions of undetected cases of COVID-19, has reached herd immunity levels. There's still no strong evidence recovering from the disease even offers much immunity, with reports of people being reinfected

That's prompted a massive global race for a vaccine, with dozens of countries funding efforts to find one. Russia's got one out of the gate already, but there is scepticism it'll be effective considering it refuses to release data from its first two rounds of trials

"Looking at the science, I believe an effective vaccine is a very remote possibility for COVID-19," said Dr Thornley.

"We know that the world record in terms of vaccine development is four years - that's with mumps, from the Merck company. We know that most of them take 10 years - they need to be carefully evaluated. These early vaccines that are coming out of Russia I'm very sceptical they've been really well tested in long-term studies."

He said discussions with vaccinologists he knows have led him to be sceptical.

"Hanging out for a vaccine is not an option... a fantasy, in my view." 

Hence his view that we just have to live with it - a view not shared by most of his peers.

"The chances of dying from COVID-19 are very, very strongly age-related... people under the age of 65, most of us working age, schoolchildren, are at extremely low-risk of dying from the virus. People have talked about it being the same order of magnitude of driving in a car 10km, 20km, 30km a day."

While death rates for young people are remarkably low for a disease that's so lethal to the older generation, it's becoming increasingly clear it's not just a "little flu", as the President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro once claimed. Some people, many previously in perfect health, have found themselves battling long-term effects of COVID-19 months after recovering from the initial illness.

There are also reports of children developing a mysterious inflammatory syndrome known as MIS-C after being infected with the virus, which has killed at least 850,000 people this year - many more than the annual death toll from influenza.

The Government said the move to level 2 was justified, as virtually all of the detected cases in the community have been traced back to the known cluster.