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Vets can help government tackle Covid-19
  1. Adele Waters

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Four weeks into the Covid-19 outbreak, and the UK has been exposed on many fronts for its lack of preparedness: a lack of ventilators, insufficient supplies of protective equipment to protect frontline staff and an inability to quickly roll out testing and contact tracing capability. In a head-to-head with Germany, the UK would be the big loser.

But this week the UK’s Covid-19 battle increasingly shifted its focus to the economy. What price will the UK pay for this disease? How long will Generation Z be paying for it? How many businesses will be killed off on the way?

This week chancellor Rishi Sunak was upfront, warning of tough economic times ahead. And these will bring with them a human cost. The Office for Budget Responsibility, the government’s tax and spending watchdog, said the Covid-19 outbreak could shrink the economy by a record 35 per cent by June. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund anticipated the UK economy to fall by 6.5 per cent this year – its deepest slump for a century – and if it does, risk management experts at Bristol university say more lives will be lost than saved. As many as 150,000 people could die during a long-term lockdown from non-Covid-19 causes, according to estimates circling in Whitehall last week.

In this week’s journal two vets argue strongly that the government’s current strategy in going all-out for lockdown to flatten the epidemic curve in order to ease pressure on the NHS is the wrong one (see p 462–463).

If this was an animal disease outbreak, they argue, vets would apply the four pillars of disease control to manage it: biosecurity, biocontainment, surveillance and resilience. They would identify and protect the vulnerable 40 per cent of the population while releasing the remaining 60 per cent to go back to work and build herd immunity.

This won’t be palatable to everyone. But I suspect most vets would agree with them when they say the government should ask vets to help manage this crisis – afterall, they are used to managing infectious disease at scale.

The government could also deploy the use of veterinary diagnostic laboratories to ramp up Covid-19 testing efforts. Many are willing to do their bit in the crisis and have been offering the government their services for weeks.

Paul Burr, director of Biobest, part of VetPartners says his Edinburgh-based facility could perform in the region of 2000 PCR tests a week to determine whether individuals are infected with the virus, or 2000 antibody tests. Yet despite trying for weeks to provide this service on a non-profit basis to either the UK or the Scottish government, his offers have so far been met with silence (see p 431).

Antibody tests could be a key route to exiting this expensive lockdown, since those who have had the virus and developed antibodies (and so presumably have acquired a degree of immunity) could potentially return to something approaching normal life. Antigen tests that show whether an individual has the virus at the time of testing could enable faster diagnosis of infected patients and allow frontline staff who are self isolating as a precaution to return to work.

This lack of take-up reflects badly on the government. As Amy Jackson, a Nottingham vet school PhD student who works for the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance, put it on Twitter: ‘There does seem to be a communication issue. Imagine everyone offering their little boats at Dunkirk but no one taking up the offer.’

When it comes to testing, the UK needs all the capacity it can muster

When it comes to testing, the UK needs all the capacity it can muster. Germany’s lower Covid-19 death rate has been widely attributed to its mass testing programme – something the UK government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty has said this country must learn from.

The world has been brought to a full stop by this virus and the UK is facing the biggest threat to public health – and, possibly, our economy – since the Second World War. Every avenue must be explored.

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