The importance of masks, social distancing and widespread testing of asymptomatic people came through loud and clear during a COVID-19 web briefing by 12 scientists on Tuesday.

Sponsored by Carnival and WTTC, but not travel-focused

Three hours of the latest knowledge flew by during the COVID-19 Global Scientific Summit sponsored by the World Travel & Tourism Council and Carnival Corp. & plc. The event was not cruise or travel focused.

‘We hope to cut through the noise and establish a baseline in science and the latest facts,’ said Arnold Donald, president and CEO, Carnival Corp. & plc. introducing the three-panel summit he hosted with WTTC President and CEO Gloria Guevara.

The powerhouse speakers included a Nobel laureate, experts from Stanford, Harvard, the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and other prestigious universities, institutes and laboratories.

All stressed everyone needs to wear a mask in public and avoid large gatherings. Bars and basketball games are out.

‘Personal responsibility is key’

‘If everyone just wore a mask for two to three weeks, this virus would end,’ according to Dr. Michael Z. Lin of Stanford University. ‘Personal responsibility is key. This virus can be defeated by personal actions alone.’ Testing, he added, would speed things up.

Widespread testing a must

Widespread testing is essential, the experts said, in order to identify people who are infected but asymptomatic so they can be isolated before they spread the virus to others.

This is what countries like Germany did so effectively.

Europe’s tight lockdown significantly reduced the levels of virus in society so that countries could carefully reopen, using testing and contact tracing to quickly detect and isolate infected people. In contrast, the US opened when virus levels were still high, mask-wearing was politicized and nowhere near the level of testing needed was, or is currently, available.

‘This is a solvable situation but testing is critically important,’ said Dr. Thomas J. Cahill, founder/managing partner of Newpath Management. He added that more progress in addressing this novel coronavirus has been made in six months than in tackling the flu over 100 years.

‘If you have the will, the technical capabilities are, or should be, there,’ concurred Dr. Stuart Schreiber, Harvard University professor and co-founder of the Broad Institute, who estimated one in 65 Americans would test positive. On average, people spread the virus to two or three others.

‘Precision’ quarantining

Testing allows for what Schreiber called ‘precision’ quarantining.

‘What we’re doing [in the US] is woefully inadequate.’

‘All this has fallen on the shoulders of the states,’ added Nobel laureate Dr. Michael Rosbash. In his view, the federal government should be providing large sums of money for states to carry out testing, as Germany did. 

In a perfect world, people would get tested daily, Rosbash said. Workplaces would test employees every morning and immediately send home anyone who’s positive. Twice-a-week testing would still be very effective at catching people in the two to three days they are infected and highly contagious but not symptomatic.

The experts said COVID-19 must be fought on many levels simultaneously, because nothing is perfect — masks don’t provide 100% protection and testing has errors. But layered together with contact tracing and the isolation of carriers, this is an arsenal.

A vaccine is not a panacea

Twenty-seven vaccine candidates are in some form of human trials with two emerging as very promising within the last 24 hours, noted Dr. Vivek Murthy, former vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and 19th surgeon general of the United States. However, he pointed out that during the H1N1 epidemic of 2009-10, it took five months to vaccinate 80m people — that is way too long to stamp out coronavirus.

Very many people will have to be inoculated since vaccine effectiveness varies (for measles, it’s very high; for flu, it averages only 40% effective). And, in a recent US poll, 50% of people said they’d be unlikely to get vaccinated against coronavirus if a vaccine were available today, highlighting the need for public education and combating misinformation, Murthy said.

Even with a vaccine, people will still need to wear masks and social distance, he added. ‘We should not presume coronavirus will be over in a few months.’

Murthy, in fact, doesn’t see life returning to as it was pre-pandemic during 2021.

A recording of the summit will be available for 24 hours here