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BIPR | Covid, Information, Decision-making, in Europe and the US
Covid, Information, Decision-making, in Europe and the US

March 29, 2021 - 18:30

Paolo Vineis, Epidemiologist, Imperial College London, UK

Event Recap

The webinar is opened with a word of welcome from Professor David Ellwood, who introduces Professor Paolo Vineis. Professor Vineis introduces the key question of the evening – Which steps lead from the science to decision-making? – and outlines the four subsections of this seminar.

Firstly, Professor Vineis addressed the necessity for preparedness in the fight against epidemics, as well as predictive models for decisions. As we are aware that new diseases emerge all over the world with increasing frequency, policy-makers should prepare for new pandemics before their appearance. However, the variety in different variables, such as infection or lethality rates, complicates such preparations. For this reason, different predictive models can be used. Professor Vineis mentioned three different models, SIR, agent-based and phenomenological models. Each model is partially built on assumptions, such as incubation time, infectiousness and its variability among infected individuals, and the percentage of infected individuals who require hospitalisation or critical care. With regards to preparation through models for decision-making, Professor Vineis stressed that errors are possible and recommends we mind the assumptions, the framing, the consequences, and the unknown facts when using models.

Secondly, Professor Vineis discussed what we can learn from previous epidemics. In New Orleans in the 19th century during a yellow fever outbreak, it was observed that epidemics bring about sociological, political, and ethical problems. Pandemics' disproportionate impact on ethnic minorities, too, has been historically established. Finally, the type of political system is important: in 1892 Hamburg, a city ruled by merchants who opposed quarantine for trade reasons and had no confidence in central powers, an epidemic outbreak worsened until the German Emperor stepped in sending Robert Koch.

Thirdly, Professor Vineis discussed the concept of herd immunity, highlighting several uncertainties in this strategy. It is unknown whether herd immunity can be achieved through vaccination as new variants may emerge all over the world. The so-called Great Barrington Declaration called for the return to normal life for individuals at lower risk of severe COVID-19, as to allow SARS-CoV-2 to spread to a sufficient level to achieve herd immunity even without vaccination. In the Lancet, a response called this approach a dangerous fallacy unsupported by scientific evidence.

Finally, the role of vaccines in geopolitics was discussed by highlighting the differences between China and the United States. China was initially leading the global race in vaccine development. Domestically, this was celebrated as "an embodiment of our country's Science & Technology progress, an embodiment of China's great-power image and responsibility, and, even more, a contribution to humankind." In the United States during the Trump administration there was no attempt at seeking the soft power of vaccine aid, opting instead for a nationalist approach. Later, when President Biden took to office, a domestic programme was introduced that will likely lead to mass immunization before China. The USA has since also joined the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access, increasing the US' international focus.

Full Audio:

Covid, Information, Decision-making, in Europe and the US
Soft Power and Global Politics Series

hosted by Professor David W. Ellwood

Paolo Vineis
Epidemiologist, Imperial College London, UK

Professor Paolo Vineis is Chair of Environmental Epidemiology at Imperial College, London and he leads the Exposome and Health theme of the MRC-PHE Centre for Environmentand Health at Imperial College. He is also Head of the Unit of Genetic and Molecular Epidemiology at the Italian Institute for Genomic Medicine (IIGM), Torino, Italy.

Vineis is a leading researcher in the fields of molecular epidemiology and exposomics. His latest research activities mainly focus on examining biomarkers of disease risk, complex exposures and intermediate biomarkers from omic platforms in large epidemiological studies as well as studying the effects of climate change on non-communicable diseases. He has over 930 publications (many as leading author) in journals such as Nature, Nature Genetics, Lancet, Lancet Oncology. Professor Vineis has extensive experience in leading International projects. He has coordinated the European Commission funded EXPOsOMICS project (valued at €8.7m, between 2012-2017). He is currently coordinating the Horizon 2020-funded project LIFEPATH (valued at €6 million, started in 2015).

He has written several books, including philosophical books, such as Nel crepuscolo della probabilita, Einaudi 1999; Modelli di rischio, Einaudi, 1990; Health without Borders. Epidemics in the Era of Globalization, Springer 2017 ); and Prevenire with Luca Carra and Roberto Cingolani, Einaudi, 2020.
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