Mullingar native, Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology, School of Biochemistry and Immunology, Trinity College Dublin.

‘Change social plans for Christmas to avoid return to lockdown’ – Mills

People will have to change their social plans this Christmas in a bid to prevent the country from returning to lockdown, according to Mullingar native Kingston Mills, Professor of Experimental Immunology, School of Biochemistry and Immunology.

Speaking to the Westmeath Examiner, Prof Mills said that “if we don’t put a little bit of a brake on right now and let things run riot over Christmas, we certainly will be looking at a lockdown like we had last year”.

“Some restraint right now in terms of socialising would go a long way to, if not reducing, then maintaining the levels, so that they don’t grow to an extent where hospitals are overrun again.

“That is getting close right now. The ICUs are getting close to capacity and once that happens, the health system is in trouble again.”

Significantly increasing the use of antigen tests, insisting on Covid certificates for all entertainment and sporting events, indoor and out, and expediting the rollout of the vaccination booster programme, would help stabilise numbers and prevent the need for another lockdown, Prof Mills believes. Noting that the booster programme has already reduced infection rates among over 80s, he says it is important that there is a high take-up among all age groups. It’s been reported that large numbers of people over the age of 60 have failed to show up for the booster appointment. That needs to change, he says.

“The public are not buying in to it, it would appear. There are a lot of no-shows for vaccine appointments, which is disappointing. People have to realise that they are not protected now necessarily with two doses. They need to go for the third one. The evidence is strong that three doses are highly effective, at least in the short term.” Prof Mills says that it wasn’t a “huge surprise” that case numbers have soared in recent weeks “given that we didn’t get the numbers down that low before everything was relaxed”.

“It was inevitable that there was going to be a rebound in numbers once normality returned. It is disappointing to see the numbers in the younger age groups – that’s the bigger issue now. The cases numbers in the older age groups, especially the over 80s, have dropped and that’s directly due to the booster vaccine.

“The highest case numbers are in the 19 to 24 age group, third level students. There’s been a significant number of cases in that age group but also the under 12s who are not getting the vaccine – there are also significant numbers there.”

When asked about public disillusionment that Ireland’s high vaccination rate has not prevented a fourth wave of Covid-19, Prof Mills said: “I think what people have to remember is that this vaccine wasn’t designed to protect against the delta variant. It was designed to protect against the variant that occurred in Wuhan almost two years ago. It is struggling to contain it. The virus mutates and it mutates in a region that the antibodies bind to and some of those changes make it difficult for the experts to neutralise the virus.

“It seems to reduce the viral load somewhat and people don’t appear to get as severe a disease, but they are still getting infected. A lot of people who have been vaccinated are getting infected. The further out you are [from being vaccinated], the bigger the risk of getting infected because of waning immunity.

“There are vaccines coming along that will be designed to target the Delta variant but they won’t be ready until the new year. They will be more protective than the current vaccine but we haven’t got them yet.”

With infection rates soaring all over Europe and in many other parts of the world, he said that the possibility of a new variant emerging is a “big worry”.

“We have to boost the whole population and we have to immunise children, primary school children. When we have done that, we might be in a better place, that’s provided another variant doesn’t emerge.”

In the short term, people will have to remain vigilant and “by whatever means possible” reduce the number of people they come into contact with. When it comes to meeting family and friends over Christmas, he says that people should not be meeting in indoor settings without masks.

“It is tough, but look at last Christmas. There was almost an invitation to party last Christmas and look what happened. It escalated in January and we had a very severe lockdown. We don’t want to go back to that,” he said.