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Dr. Parmjeet Parmar: Scientific community key to Covid-19

Opinion 01/05/2020

Dr. Parmjeet Parmar is National Party's spokesperson for Research, Science and Innovation.

OPINION: Scientists around the world are working hard to find out as much as possible about Covid-19.

It’s incredible how fast we are getting new information about the incubation period for clinical symptoms, transmission, survival on various surfaces and adaptability in various environmental conditions. Due to the exceptional work of scientists around the world, this critical intelligence has started becoming available in a matter of weeks since the seriousness of Covid-19 was recognised.

Every piece of information about how the virus operates, how it transits and how we can fight back is vitally important.

We are lucky that we were one of the later countries to get confirmed cases of Covid-19. By watching other nations respond, we have been able to learn from and utilise all the available and day to day evolving scientific evidence to break the spread of Covid-19.

Scientific evidence to date shows that just like other viruses, this virus is also undergoing several mutations. A paper published in National Science Review claims the existence of two strains of this virus; an aggressive version and a less aggressive version.

It also appears that the virus is constantly transmitting to maximise its ability to survive. It can survive on various surfaces and we now know that the average and median incubation time for clinical symptoms in humans varies between five to five and a half days.

A recent scientific publication in Annals of Internal Medicine claims some people will develop symptoms after 14 days of active monitoring or quarantine. Another study claims the incubation period of Coronavirus can range up to 24 days. The variation in the incubation period is wide and suggests the better the person’s immune system or genetic variation to fight against such viruses, the longer the incubation period.

Given the latest knowledge of the incubation period of up to 24 days, the lockdown period of four weeks as expected has shown an overall decline in the number of new daily cases reported.

In all the test results that are reported on a daily basis, asymptomatic carriers are not accounted for. This is where a real danger arises. Many in the population will be feeling fine. They will interact with family, friends and work colleagues, but they could be carrying and spreading the virus the entire time.

We have been told how important contact tracing is, and if effective, it can be a crucial component in eliminating Covid-19. 

An effective tracing system needs to have a complete record of people’s contacts, just one missing contact to a positive case, or a positive case itself, could be enough to undo the progress we have already made.

That is why it is important that the data about the spread of Covid-19 used for making any decisions is complete.

However, there are some difficulties with getting that complete dataset. If a spreader is asymptomatic, tracing may not lead to the entire cluster that should be screened. Or perhaps the person showing symptoms may not be the primary spreader. We should not assume that everyone in the secondary symptomatic spreader’s cluster will also be in the primary asymptomatic spreader’s cluster.

Building capacity in our research and development sector must also be a focus as we come out of this crisis. Modelling has been critically important for building our response and initially we were forced to borrow Australia’s model to ensure we weren’t left behind.

The current strategy may be sufficient to keep the numbers down until the vaccine becomes available, but this will not fully protect us from the virus unless people start building innate immunity towards this virus or the strain in New Zealand is proven to be the less aggressive one. 

Remember, we started with just one case on 28 February 2020, and in just over a month’s time, the percentage of our population that tested positive had exceeded the percentage of positive cases by then in China to their population. 

Scientists worldwide are working hard around the clock to develop a vaccine specifically for this virus and other options to help people fight this virus.

This is the time to unleash the true potential of our scientific community.  It would be naïve for us to not think long term and build on our scientific ability to respond to such pandemics. The possibility of the emergence of another lethal form of this virus cannot be ruled out. 

I am proud to see a group of New Zealand scientists now part of a clinical study testing some medications and others eager to be part of the global effort to develop and produce a vaccine. But, I am also mindful of the fact that the way we will support them in their ability to join the global scientific community in efforts to respond to this pandemic will play a big role in our ability to retain our world class expertise on our soil.

New Zealand scientists can and should be supported to play a role in the global efforts informing a response to this pandemic.  

I am confident that science will eventually win and it’s just a matter of time. In the meantime, we must do our part to limit the spread.

Dr Parmjeet Parmar, National Party spokesperson for Research, Science and Innovation.