Coronavirus Pandemic: “We Have to Be Cautious in Moving Forward”
Jülich, 15. April 2020 - The German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Helmholtz Association recently issued statements evaluating the current situation and giving recommendations for how to proceed. Prof. Wolfgang Marquardt, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Forschungszentrum Jülich and co-author of both statements, comments on the outlined strategies and their relation to each other in the following interview.
You co-authored the statement from the Helmholtz Association’s initiative “Systemic epidemiological analysis of the COVID-19 epidemic”, and also helped to draft the Leopoldina statement on the coronavirus pandemic and how to overcome the crisis sustainably. What do you think needs to be prioritized in order to bring the pandemic under control and be able to largely return to normality in the foreseeable future?
Considering the gaps that exist in our knowledge of the virus’ characteristics and the mechanisms by which the epidemic spreads, we cannot reasonably determine a fixed timetable for a return to normality in the coming weeks, even if we could take a purely epidemiological view and leave aside any other economic or social aspects. That is why we have to be cautious in moving forward and focus on containing the epidemic and avoiding overloading the healthcare system as our top priority. To do this, further developments have to be monitored and any new data that arise have to be regularly reinterpreted and evaluated using epidemiological simulation models. These analyses help us to reach conclusions regarding gradually easing existing measures or introducing alternative ones.
The Helmholtz Association’s statement recommends that contact restrictions remain in place for three more weeks and that these be supported by accompanying measures (Scenario 3). The Leopoldina statement recommends gradually reopening and restoring normality to the education sector and public life. Do these statements contradict each other?
We emphatically support the content of the Leopoldina statement from 13 April 2020. Leopoldina recommends gradually returning to normal public life under specific circumstances. These include when: (1) new infections stabilize at a low level, (2) the necessary reserve clinical capacities have been built up and regular treatment for other patients is resumed, and (3) the established safety precautions are being strictly adhered to. Our recommendations complement those of Leopoldina and go into greater detail with regard to monitoring the Rt number, which will allow criteria to be generated as a guideline for easing restrictions. (The Rt number indicates how many people can be infected by a single person with the virus at a given time.) Using models to reassess the data daily will provide effective support for implementing the gradual return to normality that is recommended in the Leopoldina paper.
Who are the scientific recommendations aimed at and why do you feel they are important?
Both sets of recommendations are aimed in equal degrees at the public and at political decision-makers. We want to make clear to the public that there is no simple solution for overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, and that returning to normality too quickly would even be counterproductive and could prompt a stronger wave of infections. We want to provide politicians with science-based support for the difficult task of assessing the public health, social, and economic aspects that has to precede political decisions.