Australians should expect face masks to be a wardrobe fixture for the foreseeable future, a leading coronavirus expert has said, warning a vaccine may never be found.
Former New Zealand prime minister and current co-chair of the World Health Organisation’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response Helen Clark told the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit on Thursday that despite several research labs racing to find a Covid-19 vaccine, suggestions that one will be available by the end of the year are unrealistic.
“It's proven very hard historically to find any effective vaccine against the coronavirus,” she said.
“The only thing that gives us hope this time is that the best research minds in the world are working on this. And let's face it, it's not just around the corner.”
The US Centres for Disease Control director Robert Redfield said a vaccine will likely only arrive by mid-2021 or later, a statement US President Donald Trump later said was incorrect and down to “confusion” on Redfield’s part.
However, Clark said that for the foreseeable future a mask is going to be significantly more effective than any vaccine.
“The Americans continue to talk about something being available towards the latter half of next year, but some of the advice that I’ve had out of Geneva is, ‘Don’t hold your hopes up for until the end of 2022.’
“Other well-respected scientists are saying 2024, so my message is that we’re in for the long haul here.”
Key to success? Bluetooth tech, and a touch of humility
Responding to questioning on Melbourne’s hard lockdown, Clark said the main reason lockdowns should be enforced is to supply time to develop strong contact tracing and protective measures to prevent future outbreaks.
Clark said the role of Bluetooth technology in future outbreaks is a major factor.
“A lot of contact tracing has been pretty ‘early 20th century’, in that we were asking people who they’ve been with and for their phone numbers. Bluetooth technology can pick up everyone that they have been close to in the last three weeks or so,” she said.
“You can be much more sophisticated. So use that lockdown period to get some decent settings in place so that next time a major centre like Melbourne or Auckland isn’t faced with being crippled economically by [a spike].”
Clark, who headed the United Nations Development Program from 2009 to 2017, said developed countries should practice a little humility as well.
Pointing to Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership as one of the most impressive responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, Clark said that public health measures “aren’t rocket science”.
“The critical thing now is to make a sustainable response so that we can avoid strict lockdowns going forward. For me, for developed countries there should be a little humility at looking how others, particularly in East Asia have handled it,” she said.
“And I think some of those norms in East Asia around social distancing, perhaps have enabled them to be more effective earlier.
“Some of the poorest countries have had to deal with, in recent times, contagious diseases… So with humility, we should all learn from each other.”