Coronavirus: 'Insane' UK plan to let disease spread might kill half-a-million people - Siouxsie Wiles

The UK's plan to let the deadly coronavirus spread through the population in an attempt to force a form of herd immunity left microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles in tears on Sunday.

Dr Wiles, who has been the public face of the scientific community's response to the virus here in New Zealand, said it's simply "insane".

"I had a little cry yesterday because I heard what Boris Johnson is doing," she told The AM Show on Monday.

"Half-a-million people might die in the UK because of the way they've decided they're going to deal with this virus."

So far, there have been about 166,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. More than 6000 have died so far, mostly older people, but young people are able to catch and transmit the disease. The UK has lost 35 people, 21 of them in the past 24 hours, and cases are growing exponentially, with 342 confirmed in the past day, bringing the total to 1372.

Many countries are implementing strict measures to either keep the virus out or slow its spread as much as possible - a technique called 'flattening the curve', which aims to keep the number of sick people at any one time below the maximum capacity of the health system.

But the UK is trying something different. 

"Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely," said British chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

"Also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it."

Harvard University epidemiologist William Hanage, in a piece for the Guardian, said he thought it was a joke when he first heard the UK's plan.

"My colleagues here in the US, even as they are reeling from the stumbling response of the Donald Trump administration to the crisis, assumed that reports of the UK policy were satire - an example of the wry humour for which the country is famed. But they are all too real."

Boris Johnson and Siouxsie Wiles.
Boris Johnson and Siouxsie Wiles. Photo credit: Getty/The AM Show

Dr Wiles said this will result in mass casualties, and their aim to introduce 'herd immunity' is flawed.

"It's a vaccination strategy - it's not a disease strategy. It's really amazing they're going to use that - basically just let everyone get infected and hopefully the older and more vulnerable people will be protected - it's insane."

If the health system is at capacity dealing with COVID-19 patients - some of whom will require hospitalisation for six weeks - others will miss out, she says.

"The worry is if we let this go through, we won't have enough hospital beds, we won't have enough intensive care beds and we won't have enough ventilators. That means if you have a car accident or a stroke, we won't be able to care for you either. 

"This is what's happening in Italy. Doctors are having to decide who gets treatment." 

Asian countries have been particularly good at stopping the spread - China, where the virus emerged, is now having more cases brought into the country than transmitted within.

Dr Wiles says they all have something in common - they all had cases of the original SARS virus back in 2003. COVID-19 is related to SARS, and not quite as fatal, but SARS was stopped in its tracks because it was easy to spot early on.

"As soon as all the people who had the virus were contained... SARS disappeared. It's kind of what we need to do with this, but it's running out of control because so many countries now have it and are not doing anything to actually stop it." 

New Zealand on the other hand, she says, is doing the right thing for now, with no reported person-to-person transmission.