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Virologist answers top COVID-19 questions on vaccine, lockdown and infection rates

Dr Cheryl Walter is a University of Hull Virologist with more than 15 years of experience working on a variety of viruses and virus-host systems.

She graduated with a PhD in Microbiology from Rhodes University in South Africa in 2008, and continued her research at the University of Leeds where she first worked on bunyavirus gene regulation and later on hepatitis C virus-host interactions.

Dr Walter has continued her research at the University of Hull with a continued interest in virus-host interactions, using both model bunyaviruses and emerging flaviviruses systems.

She has extensive teaching experience both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels of study.

Here, Dr Walter answers some of Hull Daily Mail’s biggest current questions surrounding COVID-19.

Dr Cheryl Walter
Dr Cheryl Walter

Q) What are your initial thoughts on the announcement this week that Pfizer and BioNTech is in the final stages of testing?

I am very excited about it! It was always going to be a challenge of producing a vaccine against a Coronavirus, but also getting it made and tested so quickly. The data looks very promising and should save thousands of lives when rolled out.

Q) Is this really the silver bullet we have been waiting for? It’s one of the biggest tools needed to control and ultimately beat this pandemic.

We still need extensive testing, track and trace as well as clinical knowledge on how to best treat patients with severe COVID-19, but it is a game changer. I also predict there will be more than one successful vaccine candidate, which is yet more good news.

Q) What are the chances it could also prevent transmission as well as treat the symptoms?

Vaccines primarily work to prevent you getting an infectious disease. It might work, if used soon after you’ve been exposed to Coronavirus, to prevent you from getting ill or getting severe COVID-19. We don’t know for sure yet, since the large clinical study involved vaccinating individuals who were Coronavirus negative at the time. It will certainly limit the transmission of the virus by creating ‘herd’ or ‘community immunity.’

Q) What stage are the other vaccines at?

There a number of other promising vaccine candidates that are in phase three (the final stage) of clinical testing. It is quite possible we will have more licensed for use a few weeks or months after the Pfizer vaccine becomes available.

Q) Could we return to normality with these vaccines?

Mostly! There will be many years to come of vaccinating everyone who is eligible for vaccination, testing and tracing the hopefully diminishing number of individuals and most likely sporadic outbreaks, but life will hopefully return to as we know it once people start getting vaccinated. There are important lessons to be learnt – where did this virus come from, how can we prevent a new one from surfacing and how do we best track infectious disease?

Q) Why do you think Hull and the East Riding has seen such a dramatic and exponential rise in cases this time round?

Part bad luck but also partly because a number of likely reasons. Firstly, we are in close proximity to a number of areas with high numbers. Inevitably some of this has crept over to us. The M62 corridor has been a hotpot for a while and so it is likely to spread locally. Another potential reason is that we had little ‘community immunity’ going into the second wave, as London did and thirdly, winter is almost always a time of year when airborne infectious diseases are most prevalent.

Q) Could there be an issue with reduced immunity due to lower cases during the first wave?

Yes, it is speculated that immunity levels in London were as high as up to 10% after the first wave. Our region saw nowhere near infection and later immunity levels like that, leaving us vulnerable.

Q) Is the current lockdown going to be enough to bring the R number down?

It is highly likely. We know the lockdown worked the first time and together with extensive testing and track & tracing, I’d be surprised if we didn’t.

Q) Should schools have closed?

From a childhood development and sometimes social support perspective, no. Having schools open to what is mostly a low risk group has also allowed parents to go back to work and reduce the personal economic fallout of this crisis.

Q) Other than washing hands, face masks and social distancing, is there anything else we should be doing to help limit transmission?

Keep your social bubbles to as small as you can. Think about if you can order groceries online, rather than regularly popping out to shops. Work from home as much as you can and adhere to isolation notifications if you get them. Keep a full two-metres from people where you can. If eligible, get your flu vaccination to keep you healthy over winter.

Q) What is one positive you can share with the readers?

We have learnt an incredible amount of information about this virus in under a year. We can treat patients with severe COVID-19 more effectively than what we could at the start of the pandemic, and now it is highly likely a vaccine is just around the corner!

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