Plan to eliminate Covid-19 might be folly


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has pledged that New Zealand will be the first country in the world to eliminate the Covid -19 virus. The PM is not alone in this quest. More than 60 University of Auckland health academics have confirmed their desire to eliminate the virus.

Jacinda Ardern is promising to achieve what has only been achieved once, which was the elimination of the major infectious disease, smallpox.

On May 8 1980, the World Health Organisation (WHO) marked the end of a disease that had plagued humanity for at least 3,000 years, killing 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

Initially to eradicate smallpox, the WHO pursued a strategy of mass vaccination which attempted to vaccinate as many people as possible, hoping it would create an artificial herd immunity – to eventually kill off the virus.

Sir Ray Avery, pharmaceutical
scientist, inventor and author.

People who had been in direct contact with a smallpox patient over the previous two weeks were quarantined and vaccinated. 

The downside of such an approach was that the virus could spread easily if it was reintroduced from overseas. This was the case in Bangladesh, for example, which had previously eliminated smallpox until 1972 when it was brought back from across its border with India. 

So, lessons learnt are that if we want to eliminate Covid-19 from New Zealand, then we would need to extend our lockdown until we know for sure that no one in the country is infected. In the absence of a vaccine this may take a lockdown of up to two years to achieve.

Then once we have achieved this then to maintain our eradication status, we would not allow anyone to enter New Zealand in case they would bring in Covid-19.

If we continue on this course, then our country will become bankrupt for no good reason.

Smallpox was eradicated because all countries  worked together with a unilateral strategy to eliminate smallpox.

The reason that the government’s elimination strategy will likely fail is that no Covid immunological testing regimes or quarantine strategies are 100 percent accurate.

This is due to a combination of inherent statistical errors in the laboratory testing, swab testing sampling errors, and not fully understanding the epidemiology of the transmission of the disease and of course humans being humans during quarantine and lockdown.

If we continue on this course, then our country will become bankrupt for no good reason.

Research by Otago University Professor Michael Baker and Dr Trang Khieu has found influenza is probably New Zealand’s deadliest infectious disease. 

More than 200,000 New Zealanders contract the flu each year. Of these, it’s estimated that 400-500 people will die either directly or indirectly from its effects. It’s time to apply some real science to manage the covid -19 threat. 

It is an impossible dream to eliminate Covid-19 in New Zealand, but just like the flu, if we focus on managing  the spread of the disease rather than eliminating it, we can protect those most vulnerable to the infection. We can then also have a healthy thriving economy which can fund further investment in the prevention and containment of infectious diseases.

Sir Ray Avery


Steve Hart is a writer and podcaster.