An expert in cold and flu viruses has spoken about the anxiety caused by the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus.
Professor Ron Eccles, former director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, spoke about the pandemic and his perspective on the potential challenges awaiting over the coming winter months in an interview with WalesOnline this week.
He believes that the virus, Sars-Cov-2, will ultimately turn into a milder illness like one of the common cold viruses that circulate widely in the community without causing major problems. But he says it may take years and we need to protect ourselves with a vaccine first.
He also spoke about the importance of social distancing, wearing masks and washing your hands – but of not being panicked by bad science and misinformation.
He discussed research which made headlines earlier this week, which claimed that Covid-19 can remain infectious on surfaces such as door handles and banknotes for up to 28 days, as well as sharing his perspective on other issues raised during the pandemic.
The study, published in Virology Journal, found that Covid-19 could live on surfaces and be infectious for nearly a month.
“It went worldwide that the virus would survive for 28 days on surfaces,” said Professor Eccles, discussing the story.
“I’ve got friends who get deliveries from Tesco and they’re already leaving the delivery for two days before they touch it. Are they going to leave it for 28 days? People are really, really worried.”
A major concern of his, he explained, is that the way in which the study in question was conducted was not representative of real-world conditions.
In reality, the virus would be transmitted in respiratory mucus, which is a “hostile environment” he explained, as it contains enzymes and cells which attack viruses.
“I don’t believe the virus will survive [in an infectious way] on surfaces for more than probably a few hours,” he said, explaining that this would vary according to factors in the environment such as temperature and humidity.
“Now, that doesn’t mean you won’t get infected from a surface. If somebody is touching their nose and they’ve got respiratory fluid on their nose, and they touch a door handle and then you touch it within the matter of an hour or so, you could get infected.”
‘There’s a lot of misinformation coming out’
A major concern of Professor Eccles is the fact that there is so much information currently available that it soon becomes very confusing for people who may not know how to spot reputable sources from those which should be treated with a bit more scrutiny.
“They [Australian scientists] did it in a reasonable journal. But there are thousands of rubbish journals out there,” he said.
“You get these wild stories coming out about Covid, and some journalist will pick it up and publish it. So I think there’s a lot of misinformation coming out, which is very poor science.”
He added that, even as an expert in respiratory diseases, he finds it difficult to keep up to date with Covid research due to the sheer amount of material being published.
“We’re overloaded with information. And where is the good information? I can pick out what I think is a rubbish journal and what I think is a rubbish publication, but maybe journalists and the general public can’t,” he said.
He added: “We’ve never had a pandemic with social media. Pandemics in the past have just gone through the population without anybody really knowing what was happening. I think social media is magnifying our anxieties and magnifying our fear and we can’t sort out the truth from the rubbish.”
‘My great hope is the vaccine’
Another problem with social media, said Professor Eccles, is the way in which groups have used it to share their own agendas regarding the virus.
One such group is the anti-vaccine movement, or ‘anti-vaxxers’, who Professor Eccles was keen to address.
“Yes, there might be some safety issue with a vaccine but we’ll have to look at it carefully and weigh up the risks,” he said.
“Even the vaccines for measles, mumps and influenza have very rare side effects, around 1 in 10 million. But if you get measles or flu then your chances of getting something more serious are much greater than 1 in 10 million, it’s probably more like 1 in 100. So you balance the risks.”
He added that vaccines are the “safest form of medicine”, stimulating the immune system against specific bits of a virus.
“You’re not being given a live virus, and so the risk is minimal,” he said.
“The risk you put yourself at by not having the vaccine is far far greater than any risk associated with using the vaccine. But it’s very difficult to go against belief. Once people have got it into their head that they believe that, it’s very difficult to shift them from it.”
Discussing a potential Covid-19 vaccination, Professor Eccles is confident that will be the biggest step in the world returning to at least a partial sense of normality.
“My great hope is the vaccine,” he said, adding that the Oxford vaccine currently seems like the most likely option in the UK.
In terms of timeline, he said he thinks it is “realistic” that it could be available in early 2021.
“We don’t know what level of protection it will give, but even if it just protects old people and the vulnerable from getting serious illness, that would be enough to open the economy. Because it won’t then overwhelm the NHS.”
Until there is a vaccine, Professor Eccles said that the best way to minimise infection is a combination of hygiene measures, social distancing and masks.
“I think keeping your two-metre distance wherever possible, wearing a mask in a crowded place and washing your hands when you come back from a public place – these are the key messages to cut infection.”
Survey: Are you following Wales’ lockdown rules
‘Separating common cold and flu from Covid’
Before we see the introduction of a vaccine, Professor Eccles believes there will be increased pressure on testing capacity in Wales and the rest of the UK caused by the usual cold and flu season over winter.
“I think it’s going to be a huge challenge now, and a lot of the problem is separating common cold and flu from Covid,” he said.
Discussing the differences between cold and flu viruses and Covid, and what people should be on the lookout for, Professor Eccles said: “You can’t be absolutely sure on this. If it’s what I call a ‘head cold’, where you’ve got a runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, then I call that a cold.
“If I’m getting more systemic symptoms, like feeling extremely tired, and if I’m an adult and I’m getting a fever, then that is more likely to be influenza or Covid.”
However, he said that differentiating between the flu and Covid becomes a bit more difficult.
“It’s difficult to separate the two, but I think the loss of sense of smell is a key one. You don’t usually get that on its own with cold and flu. And the feeling of great fatigue, without necessarily other symptoms.”
Discussing what he thinks may happen with Covid-19 in the future, the professor said he doesn’t see it disappearing completely.
“The SARS-Covid-2 virus I think will, over time, develop into a common cold virus. It may take years, but it will develop into a milder illness,” he said.
“We already have four coronaviruses that cause common colds and we manage with them – they give us a sore throat, a runny nose.”
However, he was keen to emphasise that this would be a long process.
“That’s talking years,” he said.
“In the meantime, we want to protect ourselves with a vaccine.”