Coronavirus lockdowns unproven, politically dangerous and hard to exit: Expert

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Lockdowns are the wrong policy to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, are politically dangerous and will be difficult to exit, said Swedish Professor John Giesecke, one of the world’s most senior epidemiologists.

Many countries have reacted to the coronavirus pandemic by imposing harsh restrictions on movement and social gatherings, ranging from closing schools to implementing full curfews in which residents are not allowed to leave their homes and the economy has ground to a halt. Sweden is one of the few countries not to impose a lockdown, instead allowing most aspects of life to continue as usual, including gatherings of up to 50 people.

Rather than help countries “flatten the curve” of daily infections, Giesecke argued that there is no evidence that lockdowns actually work – and that instead, they have damaging political consequences and will be unable to prevent COVID-19 from inevitably becoming part of daily life like influenza. He advises Sweden’s government and the World Health Organization (WHO) on their COVID-19 strategy.

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“When you start looking around now at the measures that are being taken by different countries you find that very few of them have a shred of evidence-based [support] ... border closures, school closures, social distancing – there’s almost no science behind most of these,” said Giesecke in a wide-ranging interview with Unherd’s Lockdown TV.

According to Giesecke, lockdowns will make little real difference to the number of deaths in the long-term, are unfeasible in democracies, and have led to a rise in power grabs by some European leaders.

“What I’m saying is that people who will die a few months later are dying now, so that’s maybe not nice, but comparing that to the effects of the lockdown – I mean, what am I most afraid of? It’s the dictatorial trends in Eastern Europe … I mean the ramifications could be huge. We haven’t even started seeing them,” he said.

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Antibody tests will reveal mass herd immunity

While countries under lockdown such as Germany and Austria are beginning to say they have flattened their curves, Giesecke told Lockdown TV that the real reason infections were slowing down was likely due to immunity to the disease from people having already caught it.

According to Giesecke, once reliable antibody tests are available on a mass scale, they will likely reveal that more than half of the population in countries such as the UK and Sweden have had the disease without even realizing it. Giesecke was referring to “herd immunity,” which he described as a byproduct of Sweden’s approach.

The UK government briefly considered a similar approach to Sweden, until the government performed a U-turn and instituted a lockdown after mounting political pressure on UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the publication of an influential study from Imperial College that suggested the approach could lead to 250,000 deaths in the country.

Read more: The UK response to coronavirus: ‘Herd immunity’ and its risks explained

For Giesecke, the UK made the wrong decision and should have stuck to an approach similar to Sweden, partly because it will now struggle to exit the lockdown without experiencing a second or third spike in deaths – resulting in a similar amount of deaths in the long run. This is because governments will be forced to ease one measure at a time and check whether it leads to an increase in deaths or not. For example, a government might decide to reopen schools, only for a spike in deaths to occur.

Sweden currently has 16,004 coronavirus cases, with almost 2,000 deaths according to John Hopkins University data. The UK, whose population is around 6.5 times larger than Sweden's, has 134,639 confirmed cases with 18,151 deaths - a higher total per capita than Sweden.

Read more: UK has not reached coronavirus peak so lockdown will stay, says health minister

Coronavirus 'tsunami' is unavoidable, lockdown or no lockdown

Ultimately, argued Giesecke, COVID-19 would become normalized as democratic governments failed to sustain lockdowns and the disease eventually spread through the majority of society.

“I think what we’re seeing is a tsunami of a usually quite mild disease which is sweeping over Europe, and [regardless of each countries’ approach] ... in the end there will be very little difference,” he said.

Giesecke clarified that by “usually quite mild” he meant that “most people that get it won’t even notice they were infected” and said he thought the fatality rate was “much, much lower” than the numbers being talked about, at around 0.1 percent, because the vast majority of people who caught it won’t be identified.

Read more: The UK says it will create COVID-19 vaccine by autumn – but is it possible?

Asked whether he was advocating for coronavirus to be allowed to pass through the majority of the population except at-risk groups, Giesecke agreed: “There are people that should be protected, but I don’t think you can stop it spreading. You can stop it for some time, but then; I mean countries that have been successful – South Korea is giving up now, they can’t maintain their policy.”

“The tsunami will roll over Europe no matter what you do,” he added.

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