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Expert comment: Learn to live with the coronavirus now before seasonal flu arrives

Following new lockdown restrictions having come into force, Professor Martin Michaelis and Dr Mark Wass of University of Kent’s School of Biosciences explain why we need to adapt to live with the coronavirus to have a proper Christmas:

15 September 2020

‘Restricting private meetings to six members from multiple households is a significant change of tone, after Boris Johnson recently raised hopes of a “normal” Christmas. The change is a consequence of a rise of COVID-19 cases resulting in an R value greater than one, indicating that more than one new infection is caused by a single infected individual. Left unaddressed, this would result in a potentially massive increase in the number of cases to levels that cannot be controlled, overwhelming the NHS, and resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.


‘This change of tone should not come as a surprise. The easing of restrictions has resulted in increased coronavirus infections worldwide. Spain and France are prominent examples. Europe has again overtaken the US in the total number of COVID-19 cases. Israel, which had been very effective in supressing its first wave, is experiencing a much worse second wave and is the first country to introduce a further national lockdown.


'With public places re-opening and workers being urged to return to the office, the risk of coronavirus transmission increases dramatically. The autumn’s lower temperatures and humidity may also increase coronavirus stability and further spread.


'As the odds do not appear favourable, we must understand that our society’s behaviour determines coronavirus transmission and the future of the pandemic. Coronavirus will not adapt to our economy. Instead, we have to update our behaviour to prevent virus spread, including social distancing, strict hygiene measures, face coverings, self-isolating when experience symptoms and when we have been in contact with infected individuals. We need to be responsible for our actions, identifying and avoiding high-transmission risk situations.


‘Still further measures must be taken. Flu vaccinations do not affect the coronavirus but reduce the double burden imposed by COVID-19 and the flu season. When we see the spread of common colds, we should not be relieved that it is not COVID-19, we should be concerned we are failing to prevent infectious diseases spreading.


'Transmission by individuals who do not have symptoms and may never have symptoms is a major issue with coronavirus as significant transmission can occur before it is noticed. This is why mass screening programmes will be critical in the future. In the absence of sufficient testing capacities, however, the only thing we as a society can do is responsibly modify our behaviour to minimise spread. Lockdowns in the Southern hemisphere prevented their flu season. If we get things right, this will not only protect us from COVID-19 but also from common colds and the flu.


'It is in our own hands whether we will have a proper Christmas or not. The spread of common colds will be a good indicator of whether our measures are working or not. If we prevent the cold and flu season, we will also prevent coronavirus spread. This would go some way towards making Christmas 2020 as normal as we could hope following the prior twelve months.’


Professor Martin Michaelis and Dr Mark Wass, School of Biosciences, University of Kent

Professor Michaelis and Dr Wass run a joint computational/ wet laboratory.  Dr Wass is a computational biologist with expertise in structural biology and big data analysis. Prof Michaelis’ research is focused on the identification and investigation of drugs and their mechanisms of action, with a focus on cancer and viruses. With regard to viruses, Prof Michaelis and Dr Wass work on virus-host cell interactions and antiviral drug targets. In the cancer field, they investigate drug resistance in cancer. In collaboration with Professor Jindrich Cinatl (Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main), they manage and develop the Resistant Cancer Cell Line (RCCL) Collection, a unique collection of 2,000 cancer cell lines with acquired resistance to anti-cancer drugs. They are also interested in meta-research that investigates research practices in the life sciences.