Coronavirus: scientists caution against reopening schools

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Warning comes as study finds children may be as infectious as adults despite most having mild symptoms

Scientists have cautioned against the reopening of schools after new findings suggested children could be as infectious as adults.

The study, from the team of leading German virologist Christian Drosten, found that even though children tend to have far milder symptoms, those infected appear to have the same levels of circulating virus in their body as adults. This suggests schools and nurseries could act as hubs of Covid-19 transmission if current restrictions were lifted.

The UK government has said that these five tests have to be met before they will consider easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions:

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

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Germany | The Guardian

Scientists have cautioned against the reopening of schools after new findings suggested children could be as infectious as adults.

The study, from the team of leading German virologist Christian Drosten, found that even though children tend to have far milder symptoms, those infected appear to have the same levels of circulating virus in their body as adults. This suggests schools and nurseries could act as hubs of Covid-19 transmission if current restrictions were lifted.

“We have to caution against an unlimited reopening of schools and kindergartens in the present situation, with a widely susceptible population and the necessity to keep transmission rates low,” Drosten and colleagues concluded. “Children may be as infectious as adults.”

The UK government has said that these five tests have to be met before they will consider easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions:

  • The NHS has sufficient capacity to provide critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK
  • A sustained and consistent fall in daily deaths from Coronavirus
  • Reliable data to show that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board
  • Operational challenges including testing and personal protective equipement (PPE) are in hand with supply able to meet future demand
  • Confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS

The study, published as a preprint that has not yet been peer reviewed, screened nearly 60,000 patients for Covid-19, of whom nearly 4,000 tested positive. When the team compared the viral load across age groups, they found similar levels throughout, ranging from one-10 years to 91-100 years.

There has been continuing speculation about when schools might reopen, and whether older year groups, including pupils in their final year of primary school and those in the middle of GCSE and A-level courses, could be among the first to be brought back into schools as they might benefit most.

When questioned at a select committee hearing on Wednesday, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, declined to give a date for reopening, saying schools would open in a phased manner.

“We recognise that the idea of schools all returning on day one with the full complement of pupils is not realistic or practical,” he said. “I also intend to be giving schools as much notice as possible.”

As countries across Europe move to ease lockdown restrictions, there is growing discussion about the role of schools in boosting transmission. However, studies looking at the actual rates of transmissionhave been complicated by the fact schools are currently shut or open only to small numbers of children.

Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

Is there evidence of coronavirus coming back elsewhere?

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

What are experts worried about?

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

Peter Beaumont

Fewer children have been picked up in national testing programmes, due to milder symptoms. And during the early phase of the epidemic in Europe, adult travellers played a dominant role in seeding infections, which also meant, purely for circumstantial reasons, that children were more likely to catch Covid-19 than to spread infections to other household members. “This observation may be misunderstood as an indication of children being less infectious,” the authors said.

The latest work aimed to provide an indirect insight into infectivity. It is possible, the authors concluded, that because asymptomatic children are not coughing they would be less infectious, but the close physical contact between schoolchildren might compensate for that.


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