In the first wave of COVID-19, the mortality rate in a London hospital was roughly the same as that from Ebola in West Africa in 2014, says Professor Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and one of the world’s leading virologists, in an interview in The Daily Telegraph.
Speaking to Joe Shute, Piot said:
I have spent my career pursuing viruses and was one of the researchers responsible for discovering Ebola in 1976. I had never previously got sick despite working in numerous epidemics. But this time last year my luck ran out – a virus finally got me.
When lockdown was announced March 2020, I was already sick with COVID-19. Iʼm not sure how I got infected. At that point I had already stopped shaking hands and was keeping my distance – but clearly not enough. I wish I had been wearing a mask at the time. That could probably have saved me a lot of trouble.
At first I tried to work through it because that is just the way I am but, on 1 April, I ended up being taken to the Royal London Hospital and put in an isolation room. There were four of us in the room, all very sick, and locked up in there for eight days. I was given massive doses of oxygen.
The disadvantage of being a physician and having seen many people die from HIV and Ebola is you know what the worst outcomes can be. I was lucky. The figures have got much better but in the beginning if you were in hospital in London with COVID one third of patients died. That was roughly the same mortality rate as in Ebola in West Africa in 2014.
I donʼt like to talk too much about that personal experience. Iʼm still pretty traumatised about it. I was also one of the early long COVID sufferers, experiencing heart problems and brain fog as well as total exhaustion.
Even today we donʼt talk enough about the death toll over the past year. It is good to talk about the extraordinary success story of vaccination but that should not overshadow the massive failure of our system that meant 125,000 people died.
I do have some sympathy with the politicians because, especially at the beginning, none us knew anything about the virus. But I think the most important lesson we have learnt over the past year is to act early. If you wait until mortality is going up fast then you are really running behind the epidemic.
Also we didnʼt have the public health infrastructure in place. After the SARS outbreak in south east Asia they set up systems for early detection, and contact tracing and testing. That costs money but you have to spend money to prevent something. I always compare it to the fire brigade. You donʼt set one up when houses are on fire. You have one ready and hope it doesnʼt have to do its job.
There will be another epidemic. There is no doubt about it and when it happens we donʼt want to go through the same shambles.
As for COVID, I think the most likely scenario a year from now is some seasonal outbreaks – just as we have for the flu – and endemic low grade coronavirus infections, but with much lower mortality thanks to vaccination. The future trajectory will also depend on the severity of unavoidable new variants and whether people will accept vaccines.
I think a successful vaccination roll-out should also involve children otherwise they will be continuous reservoirs of infection.
As for the idea of pursuing a “zero COVID strategy” – I think that is an illusion. There is only one human virus that has ever been eradicated and that is smallpox.