ELLSWORTH — The leader of The Jackson Laboratory is applauding the additional “Stay Healthy at Home” measures announced Tuesday by Governor Janet Mills to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Maine.
Preliminary models of the disease progression in Maine so far, Edison Liu said in a video event hosted by the Ellsworth Public Library, show a peak sometime in the third week of April.
Mills, he said, is “trying, very reasonably, to get ahead of that curve. I applaud her for having the courage to do this.”
Liu spoke in conversation with Nadia Rosenthal, Jackson Laboratory’s scientific director. He described the response to the SARS outbreak in 2003, when he was the executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore. Genomic technology that was new at the time was the way researchers were able to identify the SARS virus as a coronavirus, which normally are not very dangerous.
They sequenced the genetic material, which then gave important information about the structure of the virus, its components and how it functions in a human host.
“When the SARS crisis hit, we knew the most important thing we could do was to get a test and get it distributed throughout the country,” he said.
“Just like the COVID-19 epidemic, it started in the winter at the same time as the seasonal flu. So you have people presenting to their doctors with the flu, yet they have this new, much more virulent virus that is lurking in their bodies. The first people they will infect in the ER are first responders, nurses and doctors.
“At the peak of a pandemic, we can saturate all hospital beds in this country. That’s not good for any patients, and it’s terrible for patients with heart attacks, strokes, broken legs. It’s devastating for healthcare workers. That’s the double whammy in the healthcare system which we desperately want to avoid.”
He said it’s not reasonable to rely on people getting sick from the virus and then getting well to inoculate the population.
“In order to achieve herd immunity, 70-80 percent need to be rendered resistant,” he said. “But here’s the problem. If you let 70-80 percent of the population actually have COVID-19, let’s say that’s 300 million Americans allowed to have COVID-19, at even 1 percent that means 3 million Americans will die, 30 million will have to go to the hospital.
“That to me is not the price I want to pay for the natural herd immunity. A vaccine, in effect, is like giving you an infection without you having all the side effects of that infection.”
Antiviral drugs are also in development, and may be approved and ready for use first, before a vaccine is ready, he said.
“As bad as this pandemic is, we’re going to get over it. By working together, keep the social distancing policies going, but very importantly the science will carry the day,” he said. “We will have a vaccine and we will have antivirals. We don’t like the fact that there’s a new pathogen in our midst but I’m confident we can get through it.”
He encouraged Maine people to view the current disruption in our lives like a serious storm. “We know it’s going to be over. Let’s stay safe during this period of time.”
A video of the event, “From SARS to COVID-19: My Life With Pandemic Response,” is available on YouTube.