Imperial College London

World still in 'early stage of pandemic' - Neil Ferguson

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Neil Ferguson

Neil Ferguson is 'optimistic' Europe won't see very large numbers of new COVID-19 cases this year, but poorer nations may face 'bigger problems'.

Professor Ferguson was speaking at the inaugural Bloomberg Prognosis event, How Covid-19 is Reshaping the Global Health Care Ecosystem, about the outlook for COVID-19 and future pandemics.

Professor Ferguson, who is Director of the Jameel Institute (J-IDEA) and the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, said: "It's a mixed picture globally, the majority of countries are controlling transmission to a limited degree but not sufficient to stop their case numbers rising.

"I think we'll see in the majority of countries, ongoing transmission at quite high levels at least for the rest of this year – including in the USA.

"In places, such as Europe, China and much of South East Asia, you will see continued efforts to suppress transmission which would come at a significant economic and social cost, but I'm moderately optimistic that you won't see very large numbers of case numbers, or at least not to the levels we saw in March."

The leading epidemiologist added: "So far less than 10% of the world’s population have been infected and we are still at a very early stage of the pandemic.

"It’s not a crisis like it was back in February and March but it is in terms of the economy, society and health, and how we contain this virus globally which allows society to return closer to normal and for people to have a livelihood going forward.

"This could be a much bigger problem for poorer countries than for rich countries."

Lessons for the next pandemic

Professor Ferguson also spoke about the lessons that could be learned from this pandemic to better prepare for the next one.

Professor Ferguson said: "I think one of the things that will be critical is we don’t want to be in a position again, such as in the UK and the USA, where we had way too little testing capacity to really get a good handle on what infection was happening. 

He emphasised that the early focus across Europe and the USA on testing from people travelling from China led to many important cases being missed.

Professor Ferguson added: "For future pandemics we need to be scaling up testing and surveillance not just at borders, but countries need to be looking systematically for cases they’ve missed in terms of border controls and looking for evidence of sustained transmission in their populations.

"Some countries did, such as South Korea, and if every country had done this we would have seen a much lower death toll overall."

Stopping wildlife food markets could reduce risk of another pandemic

Professor Ferguson said that pandemics on the scale of COVID-19 or the 1918 flu pandemic, may only happen once a century or so, but there is a 'hint in the data' that the frequency may be increasing over time.

One of the big risk factors for emerging viral diseases is human interaction with wildlife – in particular killing wildlife for food – such as at game-markets in Africa and Asia, Professor Ferguson said.

"By stopping those we could reduce the risk but not completely", Professor Ferguson said.

Professor Ferguson was speaking at the event for business and political leaders alongside Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the WHO and Professor Devi Sridhar, from the University of Edinburgh. 

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Stephen Johns

Stephen Johns
Communications and Public Affairs

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