Emmanuel Macron, Jean Castex… The government said it and repeated it: we have to learn how to “live with the virus in the long run”, as the Prime Minister said this November 14, 2020 during a press briefing. Living with Covid-19 rather than looking how to get definitely rid of it, so is the current plan; in France like in many countries in Europe and northern America.
Therefore, the government tries to vaccinate as many people as possible, and as quickly as possible. The idea of a third lockdown has been delayed in order not to make the country dive deeper in the economic and social crisis that has come along with the pandemic. And such choices exasperate some experts.
Le Monde daily has interviewed physicist and New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI) president in Cambridge (Massachusetts) Yaneer Bar-Yam. The scientist has been working on epidemic for over 15 years. “Living with the virus? As soon as you say so, you compromise, you fall into fatalism. The consequence is that you do not choose to act” he explains, categorical.
The physicist has created the Endcoronavirus.org website gathering together several experts refusing to let the virus settle in the world’s life in the long run. They have come up with a “zero Covid” strategy: thanks to strict measures, they think it is possible for a country to get rid of the virus in a matter of four to six weeks. Their method: strict lockdown, strengthened control of new clusters follow-up by complying with the “testing, tracking, isolating” (TTI) process and conditional opening of areas free from the virus.
Bar-Yam shows some countries from Asia and Pacific as examples as they have successfully applied the “zero Covid” strategy and are now enjoying “ordinary life we forgot what he was so much our spirits are focused on the current challenges”. Australia, Iceland, New-Zealand, Cambodia, Taiwan, Vietnam… All these countries are about to win over the virus, the physicist says.
This way of thinking is being emulated. Japan, Germany, United-Kingdom, Ireland: this strategy has been included in public debates, in governmental bodies. In the February 8’s issue of the British Medical Journal, scientists say “Japan should aim to eliminate Covid-19 […] [and] reconsider its overall pandemic strategy […]. Clear and consistent public health messaging based on respect for robust science”. In Germany, Die Zeit newspaper praises this strategy, releasing results from common thought from virologists, sociologists, public health specialists and political scientists. The debate has raged on and even sparked an address from Chancellor Angela Merkel.
A feasible strategy for all countries?
Bar-Yam can also be proud to stand along with an authority figure: New-Zealander epidemiologist Michael Baker, whose strategy to fight against the virus enables New-Zealand to live normally free of cases and free of masks.
How does this strategy work in concrete words? The goal is to “crush” rather than “flatten” the contamination curve. To do so, it is necessary to instate strict lockdown, like the one France experienced back in March 2020. Once a low incidence rate has been met, namely 10 cases for 100,000 inhabitants, it is possible to adapt the virus spread control. Border controls, limited gatherings, masks, “testing, tracking, isolating”… Several levels of restrictions can be instated or lifted.
Tomas Pueyo – who also advocates for the “zero Covid” strategy – considers “no measure is enough on their own, but combined together, it works live several holed layers of Swiss cheese that are added on top of each other to make sure nothing gets through”.
Thereby, authorities must stay on their watch. The third step of this strategy is to enable to make region from a country move from “red” to “green”, determining then what are those that can resume normal activity. Yet, the country has to be ready to reinstate strong and short-termed local measures in order to control likely new surges of the virus.
Many of them say this strategy does only fit small and isolated countries such as New-Zealand, often named as an example. A reproach Bar-Yam turns against opponents: “Ireland and Great-Britain – namely islands – have no excuse!”.
As for the authoritarian and liberticide aspect of this approach, Pueyo thinks it can be justified if results are encouraging. “Governments already forced people to stay home for weeks. It would be acceptable if they say it will be over after” he argues. And when speaking about the cost of a new lockdown, Bar-Yam knows what to say: “local and short lockdowns are better than the current situation”.
The “zero Covid” strategy in France
Is France about to instate this strategy full of promises to put an end to the coronavirus and its variants epidemic? According to experts, this scenario is unlikely. Epidemiologist Mahmoud Zureik (Versailles – Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines university) explains in Le Monde that “in theory, this strategy is good. It is a very appealing model: as long as you control 1,000 cases, you control the epidemic”.
Yet, the scientist does not see how this model could be instated in France at the very moment. “If we were to go for it now, it would be a disaster, because we haven’t learned about our inability to test, track and isolate properly, to truly succeed in exiting lockdown. If we are not preparing it now, there will be only a short to medium-termed respite. Timing is key: we also need to vaccinate enough vulnerable people to instate it, that is to say more likely in April than in March” he thinks.
Same call for France’s Scientific Committee. Institut Pasteur epidemiologist Dr. Arnaud Fontanet limited himself to saying this plan was “a bit too far from the ongoing arbitrations. As it so happens to be an interesting subject”.