COVID-19: What can Latin America learn from the regrowth in Europe?

Deutsche Welle: Dr. Drexler, in this second wave in Europe, the new coronavirus appears to have spread with more force and speed. Is today's coronavirus the same as the one circulating in the spring?

Dr. Felix Drexler: It does not matter. Although they are viruses based on RNA, ribonucleic acid, and vary a bit, we do not know to what extent they do. These viruses, for example, mutate more easily than other DNA viruses. But coronaviruses, unlike other RNA viruses, such as influenza viruses, have proteins that correct their genome, or correct the errors that accumulate during their replication, which are mutations. Coronaviruses, compared to other respiratory viruses, change less. We have no proof that the coronavirus is now more transmissible.

The coronavirus reached Latin America about a month after registering the first wave in Europe. Is it inevitable now that a second wave reaches the region?

It is inevitable, but this time Latin America can surely benefit. In large part because of its location, or because of the summer in the southern hemisphere, which is less favorable for this virus. But there is no doubt that a second wave will come, because there is still local circulation of the coronavirus. Perhaps it could be a second wave lighter than the first. Cities like Guayaquil or Manaus, which were heavily affected, may already have some herd immunity. But, in general, Latin America still would not have achieved that immunity. So there is no reason to believe yourself protected. The virus does not need to be broadcast from Europe or the United States. This never left, it continues to circulate in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and throughout the region.

The resurgence of the coronavirus has forced the reestablishment of restrictions in Europe. What measures do you think should be improved in Latin America, if there is a second wave?

Testing and tracking systems, primary care, and intensive care personnel should be strengthened. The mistake we made in Germany was not to strengthen health surveillance and the primary health sector. We did not manage to strengthen our system enough to be better prepared during this second wave. That would be the main message for Latin America. The problem is that this comes with a demand for public investment. And in the region that, obviously, is not an easy issue, the economies of those countries are more weakened after the pandemic. The consequences of the extensive first wave are not over yet. In addition, the population should avoid spaces where mass infections occur, where there are many people with little air volume.

What do you think about schools in Europe remaining open during the second wave despite everything? Should Latin American governments take this into account?

I have no doubt that there is transmission in schools, and the vast majority of studies clearly show this. Children don't get very sick, but they do get infected and spread it to others. The problem is, if we keep schools closed, parents can't work. It was mainly for this reason that Germany decided to keep schools and kindergartens running. It is a compromise that politics chose and I understand its reasons perfectly. But I would not dare to advise a government what it should do with schools, because it is very complex.

In South America, for example, summer is about to begin, and countries like Ecuador or Peru have announced that the beaches will be closed to avoid crowds. What do you think of these types of measures?

The point is that these countries do not have the necessary structure to guarantee sufficient distancing in those areas. That frankly depends a lot on each country, and what infrastructure it has. The beaches are outdoors, but there are some like Copacabana, where there is not so much space in summer. Perhaps it would not be necessary to close them, but to maintain a certain distance. Surely the intention of those countries was not to further annoy their people. They probably feel that they may not be able to guarantee the safety of people on the beach, and obviously want to stop the chains of transmission.

Today> Pfizer and from the German firm BioNTech it is 90% effective, and will soon be approved. What does it take to complete this phase?

I believe that the vast majority of vaccines are currently in phase III, which are the phases that include 10 to 30 thousand people. Of course it would be better if it were 100% effective, but that 90% is already very good; it is better than other vaccines we already have. Now we have to complete these studies with more people. The more people, the better, to have more robust effectiveness data. These people should also be followed to better understand the durability of protection. I think that in a couple of months the process will be complete and, at the same time, companies will be enabling their production capacities. What governments can do in the meantime is think about how the vaccine will be distributed.

Precisely, the German Vaccine Commission published this Monday that it will first vaccinate the elderly, people at risk and health personnel …

Exactly, but it took us a long time. It was a struggle of many months to get to this. It is good to have this debate so that, precisely, the population, which will not be vaccinated first, does not feel forgotten. That would be a disaster, because those people would lose confidence in their health system, in their government. Now is the time, because the vaccine is on its way. These may not be the perfect vaccines, but, based on what was published today, it may be a good first weapon in this fight. And maybe in five years we will have a better vaccine, with greater protection.

Dr. Jan Felix Drexler, virologist and professor at the prestigious University Clinic Charité from Berlin, is a scientific advisor to the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) and leads delegations that help Latin American governments in their fight against the new coronavirus. Drexler has extensive professional experience in Latin America, where he also carried out projects to combat zika.

Source: DW