Trust the science on COVID-19, but much is still not known: Dr. Joe Schwarcz

Dr. Joe Schwarcz

The population should follow the science when it comes to COVID-19 and going about everyday life, but there is still much not known yet, chemist Dr. Joe Schwarcz, Director of the McGill Office for Science and Society, said in a recent virtual talk on "Best Practices for Coming Out of Quarantine."

Dr. Schwarcz was joined by his daughter Dr. Debbie Schwarcz, a Family and Emergency Room physician in Montreal. The talk, heard by some 900 people, was presented by Federation CJA, its Young Maimonides Society of Montreal and Maimonides Society, Banque Nationale and Odan Laboratories.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz cited a New York Times story in which 6,000 epidemiologists were asked when the public could resume several regular activities.

"What I found absolutely stunning is that of the 6,000 who were asked, only 511 were willing to respond," he said. "The rest said, 'we just don't know enough about this disease to be able to even make educated guesses.

"That is really the bottom line — the virus will set the timeline, we cannot dictate what is going to happen. We'll have to go by the flow."

But he offered some practical advice, with the caveat — "it depends":

• Hugging: "It depends on the length of time — the length of exposure is very important. if you go up to a grandparent and give them a quick hug, especially small children hugging them around the waist, I don't think this is a way to transmit the disease."

• Sporting events: "This is going to be very tough, not in the near future. We're going to see the NHL and NBA come back, but they'll be playing in front of empty stadiums."

• Gyms: "I don't see that. Much as I love the gym and I really miss it, I don't think I would want to go and run on the treadmill with someone even two treadmills away, because there's a lot of aerosolization."

• Stop wearing masks?: "Nobody wants to stop now, among the epidemiologists, one year is when they think this will relax a little bit — one percent think never."

• Restaurants: "It will be a long time before we see a scene like a [fully occupied establishment]."

• Gloves and masks: "I think it's a very good idea to wear a mask when you go to a grocery store because of the air you're inhaling, you're inhaling air that the workers have been exhaling the whole day... the gloves, I don't think are necessary, I think washing your hands once you've done your shopping is good enough."

• COVID-19 does not travel through ventilation systems, as was proven on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, for those passengers who remained in their rooms.

"A mixture of High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, UV light and charcoal filters will remove the virus from the air. So when dentists get back to practicing, most are looking at upgrading their ventilation systems, making sure a HEPA filter is involved."

For her part, Dr. Debbie Schwarcz said many older people, including those living alone, ask when they can see their grandchildren and their friends.

"These are questions we can't answer for you. These are questions you have to evaluate and weigh the risk-benefit ratio of, as we move forward."

Dr. Joe Schwarcz cautioned that, "no matter who you are, no one has sufficient knowledge.

"Unfortunately, virtually every answer to a question that is posed has to be preceded with 'I don't really know, but maybe.'

"But what I can tell you in my experience — I've been in this business for 45 years — I've never seen a situation like this where so much effort has been spent at trying to garner knowledge with so little reward. We really do not know much more about COVID-19 than we did when it started, about exactly how it's transmitted. We don't have any treatment for it, we don't have any vaccine. We will have a number of vaccines — they are being worked on and some have a lot of potential, and there are some short cuts being taken in the development of the vaccines — that's okay."

But Dr. Schwarcz added that there can be no shortcuts regarding vaccine testing.

"It is going to take years to find out whether or not these vaccines actually work. People think that we'll have a vaccine within a year and the problem is solved — that is not going to happen.

"In the long run, we have to trust the science, but unfortunately, science does not progress by giant leaps and bounds — only the quacks can do that. Science progresses by a series of small, careful steps, but eventually it will put us on the right track."

Dr. Schwarcz predicted COVID-19 "will be with us for a long time.

"It's not going to go away...we got out of the [Spanish Flu] pandemic in 1920, when society developed collective immunity because of the antibodies built up and people who survived the disease, and of course, people who died and were no longer around to pass it along.

"This is what is going to happen now as well."

He emphasized that the "main lesson we should learn from past pandemics is that any measure that before the pandemic, looked like it was exaggerated, was later considered insufficient. So when you think that all of this social distancing and the advice to wear masks and to be careful about going into indoor spaces with a lot of people, you may think this is all exaggerated, but I think when we look back on this, we'll see that this allowed us to get out of this pandemic.

"Life will go on, the population will get over this and maybe even be better off for it, because we're learning to do things differently and some of these new ways are better than the old."

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