Prominent Greek scientist Dr. Panagiotis Behrakis has warned that even if vaccinations against the coronavirus begin in 2020, the successful inoculation of a substantial percentage of the population won’t be achieved before the end of 2021.
Speaking to Greek Reporter, Behrakis, a pulmonologist intensivist at the Athens Medical Center and Director of the Institute of Public Health at the American College of Greece, says that the steep rise in Covid-19 cases was expected in the context of the second wave of the pandemic in Greece.
“The remarkable spike of cases in the younger generation is the result of the low compliance of young people to the measures of distancing and face mask wearing,” he notes.
The full interview with the Greek scientist follows:
Were you surprised by last week’s sharp jump in new Covid-19 cases? Are these new high numbers of cases related to more people getting tested? And are you worried by the spike in cases in the younger demographic?
In fact, a rapid increase of Covid-19 cases was expected in the context of the second wave of the pandemic in Greece. The increasing figures of the past month are clearly indicative of the real spread of the disease and can only to some degree be attributed to the higher number of diagnostic tests performed daily.
The remarkable spike in cases in the younger generation is the result of the low compliance of young people in social distancing and the wearing of face masks, and I am afraid that the natural mobility of this age group is a factor of the further spreading of the disease to older people. This spike is an ominous predictor of an increased number of cases needing hospitalization and ICU treatment, as young people will unavoidably transmit the disease to their families and to older people in general.
Do you find the new preventative measures adopted by the government adequate to prevent the situation becoming even worse in Greece?
No one is expecting that preventative measures taken in Greece can ever control the increase of new cases, nor to put an end to the second wave. The control of this pandemic is not just a simple issue. The best scenario is just to flatten the curve of the severe cases, in order to avoid the collapse of our health system, in the way it did in other countries.
Was the second wave of the pandemic expected to be so colossal?
Yes. Prevention is not the strong point of 21st century medicine, which is almost exclusively focused on chasing after the disease with the powerful weaponry of diagnostics and therapeutic techniques based on revolutionary research advances, basic science and contemporary IT developments. The weakness of preventive medicine allowed the Covid-19 virus to invade the whole world in less than 100 days. It is the same weakness that doesn’t allow a successful handling of the epidemic worldwide. Greece and Europe simply are areas of the world suffering from a pandemic caused by a totally “silly” virus, seriously questioning our definition as homo sapiens.
How long do you expect it to last, and could it be the last major wave of the pandemic in Europe and/or Greece?
It is difficult to make any kind of prediction. I think that the answer to your question depends upon the development of new treatments, upon the development of the vaccine, upon human behavior — which is still the only weapon we have for the prevention of the further spread of the disease. So I am afraid that I cannot predict what is going to happen in all these fields. We must be prepared for a long-term survival alongside the disease.
How is Greece performing in terms of prevention and handling of the pandemic in comparison to the rest of Europe? Are you happy with our results, and with where we stand as a country in this global health crisis?
In Greece, we started very well with a successful lockdown. Today, after a period of summer holidays and tourism-related errors, we are facing the strong impact of a second wave of the pandemic, as is happening in the rest of the world, and especially in Europe.
You recently pointed out in an interview how crucial it is that pandemic deniers are effectively dealt with, and you expressed the opinion that no communication steps have been taken in this direction so far. How would you recommend that this part of the population is addressed? What are the correct actions to be taken?
This is very important. Pandemic deniers are a serious global problem. I strongly recommend that we respect, and not outwardly reject, this very dangerous voice raised in our society. In order to develop any kind of serious action for the protection of public health, we first need to examine scientifically this really problematic phenomenon. Let us define parameters, such as age, sex, educational level, socio-economic status, geographic distribution, wider social beliefs and behaviors; and perhaps consider these people not as a single group of European or Greek citizens, but as persons reacting this way perhaps for a series of different reasons. If we do not clearly understand the underlying psychology of this reaction, my estimation is that it may be dangerous to take measures.
That sounds like a long process.
Yes, time has inexplicably been wasted. We should have already carried out some kind of analysis, of psychological approach to what is the underlying problem of these reactions. Without this, my opinion is that we cannot do anything. This is why, on a European level, and even perhaps worldwide, the phenomenon continues and it is out of control. There are just under 10% of the population believing strange things about the pandemic and not following the instructions of how to handle the disease.
What is the latest scientific information available on the development of an effective vaccine or medicine? How soon do you expect any of these to be approved and reach the public? Optimistic scenarios are talking of a vaccine hitting the market as early as next month. Could that be true?
Hope is being pinned on the vaccine, because I don’t think that we are close to finding any kind of medicine, as medication is challenging — almost impossible — for treating viral infections. In terms of the vaccination, general information is emerging which indicates that we are very close to obtaining it. It is reported that more than five big pharmaceutical companies are preparing a vaccine. The problem with the vaccination is not so much the effectiveness as the safety of the vaccine. Since this is a vaccine which is going to be used across a very wide population, within a very short period of time, any side effect will become immediately apparent and it will then be somewhat too late to correct it since so many people will have already been vaccinated.
Are you optimistic for a good result?
With a vaccine, yes, I think that it can be achieved. We will procure a successful vaccination within the next year. However, even if we start deploying it in 2020, the successful vaccination of a substantial percentage of any local population won’t be achieved before the end, in my opinion, of 2021. In my view, that would somehow signify the end of the pandemic story. We have one more year ahead of us, at least.
In the meantime, should we already be shelving plans for Christmas and New Year Eve parties for this year?
Yes, I am afraid that nobody can seriously plan things for Christmas and New Year celebrations in the way we used to in previous holiday seasons. It’s a difficult period of time and we have to prepare ourselves, but it will be Christmas and New Year’s Day without embracing our beloved ones, without dancing in the streets or drinking in the squares.