WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A scientist who has played a key role in New Zealand’s lauded coronavirus response says the nation used its luck well to stamp out the disease and is now eyeing the experiences of other countries to determine when it can reopen its borders.
Juliet Gerrard is the chief science adviser to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She described in an interview with The Associated Press the evolution in the country’s approach to COVID-19, from the chaotic early days to the risk-reward calculations it faces moving forward.
Ardern this month appointed Gerrard to a second three-year term, saying she plays an “invaluable role.” Gerrard, 53, a professor at the University of Auckland whose research is in protein biochemistry, was this year awarded the honorific “Dame.”
Gerrard said that when the virus first hit last year, the information about it was changing so quickly she would need to scrap advice she thought was solid just days earlier.
“There was no time at all to do any kind of considered scoping or written pieces. It was all verbal,” she said.
She said Ardern wanted to know the minutiae.
“I was just constantly bombarding her with sound bites, information, graphs, whatever she needed,” Gerrard said.
“She always says to me that she’s not a scientist, but I think she is a scientist. She thinks in a very scientific way. She loves to see all the data in the details,” Gerrard said. “And the reason I think she communicates it well is because she’s really drilled down into the detail and then helicoptered up to see how to simplify the message.”
Gerrard said that perhaps the most important early advice she provided was in comparing case studies from countries like Italy, Iran and Britain, where the initial responses went badly, to places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, where they went much better.
“The countries that had experienced SARS had understood that you had to act very quickly and that you could, because of the length of incubation of the virus, contact trace your way out of an outbreak,” Gerrard said.
Countries that had influenza-type response plans focused more on mitigating outbreaks, an approach that didn’t work with COVID, Gerrard said. She said New Zealand was able to quickly pivot away from its plans for a flu-type response.
She said the nation of 5 million people had advantages including its remote location and relatively low population density. But she said many other countries with similar advantages failed to manage their outbreaks.
“We used our luck well, I think,” Gerrard said.
Her counterparts in other countries often presented similar information to their leaders, Gerrard said, but they sometimes made very different decisions.
New Zealand managed to stamp out community spread of the virus early on by closing its borders and imposing a strict lockdown.
Gerrard said she was bracing for dissent when the country first entered lockdown but was astonished there was none, at least initially.
“The social license to do it was there,” she said. “And that’s partly because it had been well communicated by the scientists and the politicians and the PM.”
New Zealand has counted just 26 virus deaths and for most of the past year, people have been able to live much as normal, with few restrictions.
Compared to other developed countries, however, New Zealand’s vaccine rollout has been slow. Only 11% of the population has received a first dose of vaccine and 6% have been fully vaccinated.
“If you look around the world, roughly speaking, the places that kept it out are the slowest to vaccinate. You’d expect that, right?” Gerrard said. “Places that have people dying are going to be much, much, much stronger in terms of the case to get the vaccine, and the public are going to be much more motivated to get vaccinated. People respond to that present fear.”
But the situation has left New Zealand vulnerable to an outbreak. Gerrard said that last week, she provided Ardern with a graph of Taiwan, which New Zealand had viewed as a role model but which is now dealing with a major outbreak. Her advice to Ardern and other officials? This should give us all something to think about.
“Taiwan is just a really striking visual because they’ve got nothing and then they’ve got this massive spike,” Gerrard said.
Still, she views the disquiet in New Zealand as positive.
“I’m a cup-half-full person,” Gerrard said. “So I see the frustration that we haven’t got vaccines as a good sign that people want vaccinating.”
New Zealand aims to have offered everybody vaccinations by the end of the year. But reopening its borders would mean New Zealand might need to recalibrate its zero-tolerance approach to the virus.
“There will be lots of really complicated choices about risk appetite,” Gerrard said. “If we let it in, there will be more cases. There will be people who get seriously ill. So it’s a balance of, what’s the benefit of opening the border to whatever country, versus the risk of lockdown shortly afterwards?”
She said that calculation involves not just ensuring a certain percentage of the total population has been vaccinated, but also make sure that high-risk groups like the elderly, and Maori and Pacific people, have strong coverage.
Gerrard said she has been closely tracking Israel, where vaccination rates are high and the borders are being reopened.
“What they’re saying is, there are high-risk countries and low-risk countries. You might need proof that you’ve been vaccinated. You might need proof that you’ve got antibodies. And they’re experimenting with all those things,” Gerrard said. “So, I think being a little bit behind countries like that, who are now experimenting with opening up, we can learn from them.”
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