Coronavirus: Lengthy lockdown 'quite concerning', virus 'shape-shifting' and might be here to stay - immunologist

A prominent immunologist says the country's epidemiologists don't seem to understand the "shape-shifting" Delta virus will keep coming back, and the reliance on lockdowns to fight outbreaks is "getting quite concerning". 

But Graham Le Gros agrees with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that vaccines will eventually "replace lockdowns" - urging Kiwis to get jabbed if they want life to go back to normal sooner rather than later.

Ardern extended Auckland's level 4 lockdown by a week on Monday, with mystery cases still popping up. Economists have estimated the weekly cost of the present situation at around $1 billion.

"New Zealand can't survive without Auckland actually working, and it's getting quite concerning, what you're being put through," Prof Le Gros, director of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research and the programme director of the Vaccine Alliance, told The AM Show on Tuesday. 

He said epidemiologists appeared to be ignoring "all the cancer deaths and the socially induced deaths and all the alcoholism and things like that" that result from lockdowns, due to delayed medical procedures and mental health effects. 

There has been mixed data on whether Kiwis really do drink more during lockdowns. Some research found more drinkers cut their consumption than increased it, but those who increased did so by a lot; while other data suggests we merely changed what we were drinking, rather than the amounts. 

And a study on the impact of 2020's lockdown on cancer treatment published in The Lancet found "no evidence that the pandemic has substantially disrupted access to cancer treatment in New Zealand", but it was "unclear whether the early-2020 shutdown (and its impact on access to diagnostic services) will lead to an increase in the number of patients requiring care" in future. 

New Zealand was one of few countries in the world that recorded fewer deaths than normal in 2020. There is no evidence yet of more deaths occurring in 2021 to make up the difference.  

Not an epidemiologist?

AM Show host Ryan Bridge put it to Prof Le Gros that he wasn't an epidemiologist or a disease modeller, and could be straying outside of his specialised area of immunology and vaccines. He responded angrily, saying epidemiologists and modellers "never predicted the Delta virus".

"I'm an immunologist, and I understand how infectious diseases like viruses interact with the immune system, and that's a much more dynamic thing. No modeller or epidemiologist can tell you what the virus is going to be doing in six months' time. 

"Whereas someone like me who understands how the whole thing of immunity, herd immunity... and individual immunity works with the virus and how the virus evolves and changes to fight the immune system, I'm more expert in that area. I'll just defend my discipline in that sense." 

Graham Le Gros.
Graham Le Gros. Photo credit: The AM Show

Delta was first picked up in India, which suffered a massive wave of infections and death earlier this year driven by the highly infectious variant. The Government always said if it showed up here the country would go into an immediate level 4 lockdown, which is precisely what happened. 

Arden on Monday, extending the restrictions in Auckland, said it "has helped us get the outbreak under control, but, as you have seen in the last few days, we haven't quite finished the job yet".

"I'm sorry, what job?" said Prof Le Gros. "Eliminating this virus for this time? One event, one month ago, has completely paralysed Auckland and New Zealand for one month. What happens if we get another one next month? And the month after that? This is exhausting and no society can go through multiple rounds [of lockdown]."

Ardern on Tuesday, responding to Prof Le Gros' comments, said she didn't want to have any more lockdowns - and the best way to ensure that happens is for as many people to get vaccinated as possible. She has refused to say what figure would mean an end to lockdowns, because a single nationwide figure would obscure local variations in coverage. 

"Even if you say 'we want 80 percent', if you have only 60 percent in one part of the country, people will die in that part of the country. All of us have a role to play in getting our rates as high as possible."

She pointed out New Zealanders have generally enjoyed fewer days with restrictions than most of other countries overall, thanks to elimination. 

Prof Le Gros said elimination "has been great up until now", but is sceptical it can be achieved with Delta.

"The virus is shape-shifting, it's gone underground. We're chasing our tails now. There's a point at which we'll find out whether it's escaped and is really alive and doing well in the community. The Delta virus can infect mice, cats, domestic animals  - not dogs of course - but it can hide in so many different ways now. When do you start to decide hey, it's here - we have to start to live with it...

"Vaccination rates are actually looking pretty good now… if we can just pursue with real vigour and innovation, get everyone who wants to be vaccinated, vaccinated, I think we're in good shape for learning how to deal with this virus. Because we see overseas you can't escape the virus - it changes too much."

Denmark opens up after hitting targets

Denmark, which recently struck a deal to supply New Zealand with vaccine doses, has opened up fully after achieving 80 percent coverage of the 12-plus population. They've set a target of over 90 percent by October. New Zeaand is currently at 35 percent (29 percent of the whole population). 

But while they're dropping all restrictions for now, it might not be forever. 

"While we are in a good place right now, we are not out of the epidemic," Danish Health Minister Magnus Heunicke said earlier this month, announcing the plan. "The government will not hesitate to act quickly if the pandemic threatens essential functions of our society again,"

Aucklanders whose vaccinations aren't booked until next month are being urged to rebook to get them sooner, with plenty of capacity.

"Let's get Auckland vaccinated now, by the end of the week," said Prof Le Gros. "It's a pity you're in lockdown 4, rather than lockdown 3, because you can get more people out moving to get vaccinated. But we really need to get you guys vaccinated, 100 percent."