'We are just at the beginning. This is not going away,' world's top virus slayer tells SA

A nurse performs a swab test for Covid-19 in Lenasia, Johannesburg, on May 13 2020. The world's top virologist says Covid-19 is not going away.
A nurse performs a swab test for Covid-19 in Lenasia, Johannesburg, on May 13 2020. The world's top virologist says Covid-19 is not going away.

“We must realise we are only at the beginning of this pandemic. There is no way by some miracle, one fine day, it will disappear. This is a diabolical virus.”

These were the words of the world’s most renowned “virus hunter”, Professor Peter Piot, to Linda-Gail Bekker, deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at UCT's Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine in a webinar on Thursday night.

Bekker refers to Piot as a “virus slayer” because he helped discover Ebola in 1976 and has been one of the giants of fighting that disease and HIV for decades.

He is currently director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and recently almost lost his life to Covid-19.

He said, “I have spent decades chasing viruses and then a virus got me”.

Piot spent several days in isolation and after his release, suffered “silent hypoxia”.

This is one of Covid-19’s most dangerous symptoms because the person doesn’t know they have it: oxygen levels fall to dangerous levels and you can die, but you don’t have the shortness of breath that one usually gets from hypoxia, which is why it’s called ‘silent hypoxia’.

“Covid-19 is a multi organ problem and it is very nasty as it goes to your whole body,” he said, adding that it had taken him weeks to recover and he still wasn’t completely over it.

He said, “We need to think of ourselves as a society living with this. We need to think not only in terms of how to deal with it as an acute pandemic today but plan for years. What is absent is long-term planning.”

Prof Peter Piot.
Prof Peter Piot.
Image: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

He said we need to “minimise risk to bring down mortality and bring it under control” so that our health system was still in place for all the other diseases, because it is not going away.

“A virus’s reason for living is to find a host because a virus needs a living cell to exist, so as long as there are people in the world who are not immune, Covid-19 will be with us,” he said.

On children returning to school, Piot said in his view the primary schools should open for all grades without delay but with strict protocols in place.

“Based on what we know and the mathematical modelling on risk of infection and transmission, we can safely assume that children of primary age hardly get it and spread it. I would say yes, open the primary schools, but with social distancing, masks, and frequent washing of hands,” he said.

He added that care homes, hospitals and prisons should be a priority as these were the hardest hit in all countries, but primary schools were not.

Alluding to the denialism era in South Africa under former president Thabo Mbeki when African potatoes were punted by the government as the answer to the HIV pandemic, Prof Piot said, “I can see a lot of similarities here - particularly in the early days of the spread of HIV all over the world. In the beginning of a pandemic, you get all kinds of fake news and fake treatments. Trump pushing for hydroxychloroquine now reminded me of a certain South African president who pushed certain treatments for HIV when there was no evidence.”

He said some countries like Brazil were in denial about Covid-19 just as South Africa had been under Mbeki, but this can cost countless lives.

He added, “There are just so many uncertainties, just like in the early days of HIV. People want absolute certainty but as scientists and clinicians, we need to be honest and say that we just don’t know yet.”

On the upside, he said, having seen what SA has achieved in the fight against HIV, he is confident in the country’s ability to tackle Covid-19.

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