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Podcast Review: Genetic Shambles – COVID-19 experts Q&A

20 July 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1056

COVID-19 has made clear that we have not had enough of experts. For those wishing to get their expertise from top disease scientists, the Cosmic Shambles Network in association with the Genetics Society and the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath present the COVID-19 Experts Q&A. This is the pilot episode of the Genetics Shambles 12 episode series, which is available fortnightly (streamed live at 8.30pm on the Cosmic Shambles network, with the podcast released a week later). 

Hosted by Robin Ince (of the Infinite Monkey Cage radio fame), it's pilot episode features a formidable team of experts, including immunologist Professor Sheena Cruickshank from the University of Manchester, microbiologist Professor Edward Feil from the University of Bath, and mathematical modeller Dr Ellen Brooks Pollock from the University of Bristol.

The COVID-19-themed pilot episode was driven by listener questions, which gave a quick-fire feel, but later episodes are hosted by Ince, tackling questions about why viruses affect some people more than others, where we are in the hunt for antiviral drugs and vaccines, and how the human genome has helped personalised medicine. I would recommend listening to the podcast version, which lacks the Zoom-meeting vibes of the webinars (we've all had enough of those!).

The podcast subject may be weighty, but a bit of comedy gold comes in the form of a listener question about whether we should trust the government. The pilot episode was streamed a month ago, but this question is certainly still as relevant as ever! 

Professor Cruickshank tactfully critiques the 'herd immunity' strategy. This is usually achieved through vaccination, but the UK Government proposed achieving it through natural infection. Thanks to the outrage of immunologists, the government backtracked 'although herd immunity keeps rearing its head again', she groans. I was especially interested to hear the viewpoint of Dr Brooks Pollock, who has contributed work for the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), the modelling subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). 'Herd immunity is not a policy', she says, firmly. 

Another very relevant question concerns the second wave - when it will occur, and whether this will coincide with flu season. The experts are not convinced about the inevitability of a second wave - they think it could be prevented with contact tracing. 'The app would be good, if that ever works,' says Professor Feil. All experts agree that we should not allow the second wave to coincide with flu season. 

A question on R (reproduction) number is interesting, but quickly devolves into a discussion of 'confidence intervals', which is a bit too technical for a podcast! Although the experts helpfully say, 'if you don't understand any science, you can rewind and watch again'. As any student in the new online-lecture age could tell them, this only helps so much!

An interesting point, which Dr Brooks Pollock brings up, is the possible impact of the Black Lives Matter protests on infection rates. She says people would be 'a bit too close together' but praises the wearing of masks, and points out that the protestors are young, and outdoors. She believes this will not cause a spike in infections, which is reassuring to hear! 

Several of the questions cover the increasing disagreement within the community of experts. For example, there are studies both for and against the hypothesis that the common cold antibodies offer us some protection against COVID-19. Professor Cruikshank blames differences between study techniques, as well as different populations. 

Finally, some more direct advice - what would they tell people experiencing symptoms, apart from staying home and taking paracetamol? The unexciting answer is lots of fluid and rest. The experts also confirm that ibuprofen is fine to take with COVID-19.

And for the rest of us, under lockdown with no symptoms, what should we be doing with our lives? The positive side is getting to enjoy the little things in life - but the negative is spending more time on Zoom, suggests Dr Brooks Pollock. This Zoom-critique incited the rare phenomenon of unanimous expert agreement!

Overall, I thought the episode was sombre but informative, featuring great scientists doing great work. If your brain has not yet been fried from COVID-overload, you should check out this fascinating new podcast!

Genetics Shambles - COVID-19 Experts Q&A
The Cosmic Shambles Network |  11 June 2020
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