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BSI open letter to Government on SARS-CoV-2 outbreak response

14 March 2020

British Society for Immunology members are acutely aware of the implications that the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has for global public health. Following recent announcements from the UK Government on the steps they are taking to handle this outbreak, our community has voiced significant questions about the strategy proposed. To reflect these, we have sent the following open letter from our President, Professor Arne Akbar, to voice the thoughts of our immunology community to Professor Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Officer and Rt Hon Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health & Social Care. 

The world faces a huge challenge in light of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. The UK’s public health strategy differs from many other countries, with an aim to build herd immunity to protect the population. Within the immunology community, we have significant questions about this strategy. The ultimate aim of herd immunity is to stop disease spread and protect the most vulnerable in society. However, this strategy only works to reduce serious disease if, when building that immunity, vulnerable individuals are protected from becoming ill, for example through social distancing. If not, the consequences could be severe. 

Additionally, there are many unknowns in how the SARS-CoV-2 virus interacts with the human immune system and how this might play into current scenarios. For example, we don’t yet know if this novel virus will induce long-term immunity in those affected as other related viruses do not. Therefore, it would be prudent to prevent infection in the first place. More research is urgently needed on this front.

The UK leads the world for the quality of our immunology research. Given our current lack of knowledge on SARS-CoV-2, our community of immunologists have two asks. Firstly, we feel more needs to be done to ensure social distancing to limit the number of COVID-19 cases in the short term, especially for vulnerable members of our communities. This will enable us to buy time until we understand the virus better and can begin to develop therapeutics.  Secondly, to aid efforts, we call on the government to release their modelling data to allow scrutiny from the scientific community to better predict the course of this outbreak.  

We have a small window of opportunity to protect our nation, to learn about this new emerging virus and to deal with this unprecedented threat to global health. 

Professor Arne Akbar
President, British Society for Immunology


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The British Society for Immunology is the leading UK organisation representing over 4,200 scientists and clinicians from academia, clinical medicine and industry who study the immune system. Our mission is to promote and support excellence in research, scholarship and clinical practice in immunology for the benefit of human and animal health.