While delivering medical supplies to Ukraine in Bratislava, I received a text message from Stephen Donnelly saying he wanted to call me. At first I thought it was a joke from my fellow passenger, Dr. Brian McManus. You know, like that time when John Banville got a call saying he’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but it turned out to be a scam. Sympathy for that, John!
But no, it was real. The Secretary of Health called me and asked me to join the new Covid-19 Advisory Group that will replace the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).
He said the scope would extend beyond Nphet, which has a focus on public health. Importantly, there will also be a big science focus, which is great. Science has gotten us through the pandemic and will continue to do so. The group is led by outgoing Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Holohan – although it’s not clear if that’s still the case given recent events. I hope Tony is the chairman because Ireland still needs his vast experience and international reputation. Last year I heard David Nabarro of the World Health Organization say that Tony was among the top performing public health doctors internationally during the pandemic.
Other members are Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ronan Glynn; dr Philip Nolan, who was responsible for modeling case numbers during the pandemic; HSE’s Colm Henry; Professor Pete Lunn from the ESRI Behavioral Research Unit; Professor of physical chemistry at UCC John Wenger, who is an expert on ventilation; and dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory. There is also infectious disease specialist Professor Paddy Mallon of UCD, President of the Royal College of Physicians Professor Mary Horgan and consulting microbiologist Dr. Anna Rose Prior.
Very importantly, there are also three immunologists – myself, Professor Anne Moore from UCC and Professor Cliona O’Farrelly from TCD.
I can’t wait for the first meeting. Throw a stick in this room and you’ll hit a professor.
What strikes me is what a massive group of people I have to bring together. We are fortunate in Ireland that the Minister has such talent at his disposal. And such a group of people committed to doing their best for Ireland at this stage of the pandemic.
The group will advise the Government on how best to maximize Ireland’s medium to long-term preparedness against Covid-19. The truth is it’s still with us. There are still people who catch it every day. And people are still dying around the world. More than 20,000 deaths were registered last week.
Fortunately, however, the vaccines are doing their job and protecting people from serious diseases. As we move through spring, case numbers and hospital admissions will continue to fall, becoming negligible as summer progresses. But it won’t go away entirely, and we’ll need to plan for the fall when case numbers start to rise again. Because Covid-19, as we all know by now, mainly spreads indoors. It is a respiratory virus that is exhaled by infected people. When you are around someone, especially indoors where there is no breeze, it can linger in the air and infect you. Especially when the air is still. And so while we move
Indoors, it spreads again – just like colds and flu, which also affect the respiratory system.
What is the minister planning for the new advisory group? He said he wants it to be “best in class” internationally, which is great to hear. The Irish Government should have the best advisors in everything it does and this is no different. Most importantly, it bases its deliberations and subsequent advice on science.
The group will monitor the situation in terms of case numbers and the trajectory of infections, and offer advice on what the government should do in the face of spikes. That was Nphet’s main job. It will also advise the government on experiences in other countries and what Ireland can learn from international best practice. Many of us have contacts with colleagues around the world working on Covid-19 and we can consult with them.
What will we keep an eye on? Well, firstly, the vaccination situation in terms of variants. It was difficult to predict how many variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus would appear. There has been an onslaught of variants that can to some extent evade our immune systems, and given the large number of cases that are still apparent around the world, they will continue to come. We’re still learning what that means, and a likely scenario is an annual vaccination campaign just like we have for the flu. Advice on this is provided by the National Vaccination Advisory Committee.
The best vaccine would be one that works against every variant. Several are in development, using all sorts of clever technologies. One that was approved in the UK last week and could work against any variant is made by French company Valneva. This should soon be approved in the EU and could well be operational this autumn, although others are in development that may be even better.
Another new vaccine that could be very useful is one that would protect both the nose and lungs from infection. Current vaccines only protect the lungs, so you can get reinfected in your upper respiratory tract. But one that also protects the nose protects against infection and thus limits the spread of the virus.
The dream vaccine would work against any variant and stop the spread of the virus. Such a vaccine is within reach and the group will be able to monitor developments and advise accordingly. We can also advise you on new therapies and technologies that could help, including in the critical area of ventilation.
The recent dangerous surges in Hong Kong and Singapore mean we cannot let go of our vigilance just yet. We need to be on the lookout for new variants that may be more dangerous and advise accordingly. We also need to keep an eye on developments in vaccines and therapies and other risk reduction measures.
I very much look forward to working with the group and providing advice to ensure Ireland makes the right decisions in the coming months. We still need to protect ourselves from a still emerging virus that will continue to have tricks up its sleeve. Our people deserve nothing less.
Luke O’Neill is Professor of Biochemistry in the Department of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/im-excited-to-be-part-of-the-new-covid-advisory-group-but-dr-tony-should-still-chair-it-41560009.html I’m delighted to be part of the new Covid Advisory Group – but Dr. Tony should still be in the chair