Neil Ferguson's Indian variant optimism: 'the curves are flattening'

19 May 2021

5:37 PM

19 May 2021

5:37 PM

Amid much gloom in Westminster over the threat posed by the new Covid Indian variant, Mr S was intrigued to hear a counter blast of optimism this morning from an unlikely source – Professor Neil Ferguson.

The epidemiologist appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme in which he said that this new strain appears to be less transmissible than some have previously feared as the ‘curves are flattening a little’ according to the ‘most recent data.’ Presenter Nick Robinson asked:

Transmissibility is this key thing that you’re looking to get the answer to. When do you think you will have that answer and is it really a case as we were hearing earlier on the programme which is if it is 50 per cent more transmissible this variant, that’s little short of a disaster, but 20 per cent we could kind of live with?

Ferguson – dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ last year after his modelling shocked Boris Johnson into imposing the first lockdown – responded:

So first of all it’s never all or nothing with science, you gain evidence as the data is collected. Certainly it is much easier to deal with 20 and 30 per cent than it would be 50 per cent or more. The challenge we have – and just to explain to people why this is difficult, I mean we’re tracking this virus you could say ‘Well, why can’t we immediately see how it outcompetes the existing Kent variant?’– is because of how it was introduced into the country.

It was introduced from overseas, principally into people with Indian ethnicity, a higher chance in living in multigenerational households and often in quite deprived areas with high density housing so we’re trying to work out whether the rapid growth we’ve seen in areas such as Bolton is going to be typical of what we could expect elsewhere or is really what is called a ‘founder effect’ which is often seen in these circumstances.

There’s a little bit of – I would say – a glimmer of hope from the recent data that while this variant does still appear to have a significant growth advantage, the magnitude of that advantage seems to have dropped a little bit with the most recent data so the curves are flattening a little but it will take more time for us to be definitive about it.

Given Ferguson’s reputation as one of the lockdown hardliners, Mr S hopes ministers will remember his cautious optimism the next time they talk about the new variant’s transmissibility.

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