Peter Varnham is a member of the COVID-19 Taskforce and head of the International Media Council at the World Economic Forum. His father, Guido Vanham, is a virologist and microbiologist who studies the impact of infectious viruses.
Guido Vanham sent his three children a letter with the exact steps they should take with lockdowns to keep their families safe.
Peter tweeted the letter out. You can read the tweets or the letter reprinted below.
My dad, who retired last year as Head of Virology at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, shared an interesting note with me and my siblings, to explain to us the situation and future outlook of the coronavirus in Europe, China and around the world. Here’s what he said:
— Peter Vanham (@petervanham) March 13, 2020
Here’s the full letter:
Dear Nele, Johan, and Peter,
As I promised when talking to you on the phone earlier, I wanted to share some of the most important facts on COVID-19, and offer you a few of my insights and a word of advice. I hope it helps you as you adjust to this new situation. Have a look for starters at the Worldometer website on the Coronavirus.
There’s a lot of ways to look at the numbers there, but as you can see, Europe (and the US) are right now in the rising part of the curve of detected cases. We’re also sure to remain there in the next two weeks, because the containment measures that were announced in recent days all over Europe take a while to have an effect: The virus has an incubation period of about two weeks, so you’ll only see numbers drop significantly after that.
There’s no doubting the seriousness of the situation in countries like Italy, but also Switzerland and Belgium, where we live, as well as the US. The good news is that China does show that the rising trend can be bucked. For example, China had only 11 (!) new cases on Saturday (March 14) as opposed to 14,000 at its peak. The US had 93 new cases (with lots of tests still lacking), Belgium and Switzerland respectively 130 and 236, and Italy 2,546 (on Friday, March 13). (Editor’s note: This is the original text of Vanham’s letter; some stats included have since changed.)
But not just the new cases are interesting, also cumulative ones. In China, only 56 people per million got officially infected since the outbreak started. Belgium, with 59, already surpassed the cumulative case density, and in Switzerland (159) and Italy (292) the number is much higher still. Of course, all these numbers are an underestimation, as only severely ill people are tested nowadays.
We don’t know for sure yet which role children and younger and healthy adults play in the spread of the virus. But an “annoying” characteristic of viruses is that people who have no symptoms, or are just about to develop symptoms, indeed play a major role in spreading them. The speed at which this #coronavirus is spreading is really a proof of that general characteristic. So that’s a reason to separate young kids from older people.
Now, we do have to be careful in interpreting the death rate of this virus. It is indeed low (less than one per cent) for people like you, but you should still consider you can get severely ill. So be careful! And think also of others. The death rate is significantly higher for older people and for sick people. People with heart issues, diabetes, or cancer are at a particularly high risk, and those who are older than, say, 70. We shouldn’t be selfish in these times. We can carry the disease, and they might die from it.
In the end, the mortality rate will prove to be much lower than the current death rate. But it will still be “many” times, possibly dozens of times, higher than the flu. And we can’t predict yet if the #coronavirusCOVID-19 will ever become “like the flu” in mortality rates and immunity: it may indeed become weaker over time, as we develop immunity against it. That would be the best case scenario. And we may well develop a vaccine against it within a year’s time, solving the problem as well.
But equally, the virus may mutate and become more virulent, and it may develop “resistance” against human anti-bodies, or it may even use anti-bodies to enter our body cells (as Dengue does, for example). In that case we’re back to square one and new disruptive epidemics with COVID-19 may follow.
We’ve all already had other coronaviruses, which made us get a “common cold” in past years. Unfortunately, we didn’t develop “cross-immunity” to this novel one. So, developing a safe and effective vaccine may not be easy. We’ll know more in a few months.
We may also develop an effective medicine for treatment of course. That could be useful, for example, when we can identify those people without symptoms, that were in contact with someone who has been infected and gotten ill. They could take the medicine to avoid getting sick themselves. But overall, a medicine is not necessarily the silver bullet either, because #COVID19 is a very acute infection, and so you should take the medicine the moment that you’re infected, but haven’t developed symptoms otherwise you’re too late. (On the other hand, we did develop a good anti-flu vaccine, so that’s positive.)
In conclusion, on the scientific findings and real-world development of the virus, it looks like my successors as virologists won’t be out of a job anytime soon.
Now, as for my recommendations for you.
Nele, we love Maxim and Miles (the grandchildren) very much. But in these circumstances, it is better we don’t care for them until this situation is over. And it’s even better that you don’t come to see us all too often, either. There are many asymptomatic cases, and in this case it is better to be safe than sorry. Let’s stay in close touch over the phone and over email.
Johan, I know you have to visit a lot of companies for your work, doing food controls in restaurants and others dense places. You told me that in one case last week, someone you visited was coughing a lot while you were near. That’s a very risky situation. Going forward, you should make sure to warn people in advance to keep their social distance, and to cancel when they are sick or have symptoms.
And Peter, you have been travelling a lot, often by plane, and taking rental cars, buses and trains. You should avoid that, too. Travelling poses an extra risk, both for yourself and others. You shouldn’t stop your life, but don’t travel unless strictly necessary. In your spare time, find outdoor activities to do close to home where you can keep your distance. Besides, you should stop taking planes so much anyway. They’re not the bus to work! We should think about the climate.
Other than that, let’s all follow the precautionary measures that have been shared widely these past weeks.
Wash your hands often and keep them away from your face, especially when you’ve touched objects touched by many, like a door knob, a railing, and other public areas. And don’t go to closed spaces with others if you don’t have to. Take it down a notch (or two) on going to bars and restaurants, or better still, avoid going entirely for a few weeks (I feel for the small business owners, but public health comes first now).
You can keep doing sports and walks outside, because you’ll naturally keep your distance, and it’s good to not fully isolate: you also need to maintain your mental sanity. This situation may take a few weeks, possibly a month or two. Do prepare for that, as it’s the most likely scenario. So let’s stay in touch and support each other. We’ll get through this together.
As for your mum and I, don’t worry about us. The sun is shining, the skies are clear (at least for now), and the magnolia in the garden is blossoming. It is time for us to go for a bike ride now.