Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology at the University of Oxford, has highlighted how intense social distancing for a prolonged period of time could mean the human body is less exposed to ordinary germs and therefore weaken our defences against future diseases. Professor Gupta hit the headlines in March after her team’s best case scenario model for the impact of COVID-19 was published.
The project worked on the theory coronavirus hit the UK in December and would spread rapidly through the population, creating “herd immunity” against COVID-19.
The Government introduced the lockdown on March 23 after a rival project by Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London, warned the worst-case scenario would result in half a million COVID-19 deaths in the UK.
Professor Gupta, who has since called for the UK lockdown to be eased far sooner, has compared the human immune system to trees “waiting to be set ablaze”.
She told The Daily Telegraph: “This is a warning to not assume that the situation where we don’t suffer regular assaults by pathogens puts us in a better position.
“If we return to the point where we have no exposure, where we keep everything out and return to a state of existing as relatively isolated communities, we are like clumps of trees waiting to be set ablaze.
“That’s how things were in the age of pandemics.”
The leading epidemiologist also compared the current living conditions and lack of exposure to viruses to an extreme example in 1918 and the Spanish Flu – which proceeded after decades of no diseases and went on to kill 50 million people.
On the severity of the Spanish Flu pandemic, she said: “That was because in 1918 there had been no flu at all around in Europe for 30 years.
“We weren’t globally connected then as we are now.
“Effectively we used to live in a state largely similar to lockdown 100 years ago, which created the conditions for the Spanish flu to come and kill 50 million people.”
COVID-19 is a very complex disease and is linked to the deadly SARS outbreak in China in 2003 – which killed more than 800 people.
On the different types of coronavirus infections, Professor Gupta highlighted the value of being exposed to similar diseases.
She added: “The kind of immunity that protects you against very severe symptoms and death can be acquired by exposure to related pathogens rather than the virus itself.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, restrictions on travel have also been a source of controversy – including the UK’s 14-day self-isolation rules for international arrivals.
Professor Gupta has highlighted the double-edged sword of the global movement of people – she highlights travelling abroad can enhance the spread of viruses but the mixing with other people in different environments can strengthen protection against bugs.
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She added: ““The conditions for the spread of a virus have been enhanced by current practices of global mixing with worldwide travel.
“But what also has been strengthened is the level of cross-protection we gain from exposure to different bugs.
“Overall, we are in a better place with all this international travel. So, the conditions where a pathogen might kill a lot of people has been reduced.”