A scientist who played a key role in New Zealand’s lauded coronavirus response says the nation used its luck to eradicate the disease and is now watching other countries’ experiences to see when it can reopen its borders.
Juliet Gerrard is the senior scientific advisor to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, describing in an interview with The Associated Press how the country’s approach to COVID-19 has evolved, from the chaotic early days to the risk-return calculations it will face in the future.
Ardern appointed Gerrard to a second three-year term this month and said she played an “invaluable role”. Gerrard, 53, a professor at the University of Auckland who researches protein biochemistry, was honored this year with the Lady of Honor “Lady”.
Gerrard said when the virus first appeared last year, information about it changed so quickly that she had to discard advice that she thought was solid just days earlier.
“There wasn’t time to do any kind of thoughtful scoping or written piece at all. It was all verbal, ”she said.
She said Ardern wanted to know the details.
“I kept bombarding her with sounds, information, graphics, whatever she needed,” said Gerrard.
“She always tells me she’s not a scientist, but I think she’s a scientist. She thinks very scientifically. She loves to see all the data in detail,” said Gerrard. “And the reason I think she’s communicating it well is because she really drilled into every detail and then took the helicopter up to see how to simplify the message.”
Gerrard said perhaps her most important first piece of advice was to compare case studies from countries like Italy, Iran and the UK, where initial responses were poor, to places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where they did much better.
“The countries that experienced SARS understood that you had to act very quickly and that because of the length of time the virus had incubated, you could trace your way back from an outbreak,” Gerrard said.
Countries with influenza response plans were more focused on containing outbreaks, an approach that didn’t work for COVID, Gerrard said. She said New Zealand was in a position to move quickly away from its plans for a flu-like response.
She said the nation has advantages, including its remote location and relatively low population density. However, she said that many other countries with similar advantages have not been able to cope with their outbreaks.
“We used our luck well, I think,” said Gerrard.
Your counterparts in other countries often presented their leaders with similar information, Gerrard said, but they sometimes made very different decisions.
New Zealand managed to eradicate the spread of the virus in the community early by closing its borders and imposing a strict lockdown.
Gerrard said she was prepared for dissent when the land was first locked down, but was amazed that there wasn’t one, at least initially.
“The social license for it was there,” she said. “And that’s partly because it was well communicated by the academics and the politicians and the prime minister.”
New Zealand only counted 26 virus deaths and most people were able to live normally with few restrictions in the past year.
However, vaccine adoption in New Zealand has been slow compared to other developed countries. Only 11% of the population have received a first dose of vaccine and 6% are fully vaccinated.
“If you look around the world, the places where it was kept outside are the slowest to vaccinate. You’d expect that, wouldn’t you? “Said Gerrard.” Places where people die are going to be much, much stronger on the case of getting the vaccine, and the public will be much more motivated to get it. ” vaccinated. People react to this current fear. ”
But the situation has left New Zealand vulnerable to an outbreak. Gerrard said she provided Ardern with a graphic from Taiwan last week, which New Zealand viewed as a role model but is now grappling with a major outbreak. Your advice to Ardern and other officials? That should give us all food for thought.
“Taiwan is just a really impressive picture because you have nothing and then you have this massive tip,” said Gerrard.
Nevertheless, she sees the unrest in New Zealand positively.
“I’m half full,” said Gerrard. “So I see the frustration that we don’t have vaccines as a good sign that people want to get vaccinated.”
New Zealand plans to offer all vaccinations by the end of the year. However, reopening its borders would mean that New Zealand may have to recalibrate its zero tolerance approach to the virus.
“There are going to be a lot of really complicated decisions about risk taking,” said Gerrard. “If we allow it, there will be more cases. There will be people who will get seriously ill. So there is a balance between the benefit of opening the border to any country versus the risk of it being closed shortly afterwards? “
She said the calculation is not just about ensuring that a certain percentage of the total population is vaccinated, but also ensuring that high-risk groups such as the elderly and Maori and Pacific residents have strong coverage.
Gerrard said she has been following Israel closely, where vaccination rates are high and borders are reopening.
“What they are saying is there are high risk countries and low risk countries. You may need proof that you have been vaccinated. You may need proof that you have antibodies. And they experiment with all of these things, ”said Gerrard. “So I think that if we are a little behind those countries that are now experimenting with opening up, we can learn from them.”