ENTRY POINT Under Professor McConnell's proposal, testing for the coronavirus would take place at the Michael Davitt bridge on Achill Island. Gardaí are pictured at the bridge carrying out a checkpoint back in late March just after Covid-19 restrictions were put in place.
Professor says test-and-trace project could leave island, and Ireland, virus free
One of Ireland’s most prominent scientists has suggested that Achill Island would be an ideal location for a rigorous ‘test and trace’ pilot project, which he believes would make the island coronavirus free within three weeks.
Professor David McConnell, Fellow Emeritus in Genetics in Trinity College, and biologist Dr Thomas McLoughlin, an Achill-native, have suggested that the island should be a location for a ‘test and trace’ programme which could then be rolled out nationwide if successful.
In a letter sent to the HSE, they said that if the entire population of Achill was tested for Covid-19 and track and trace criteria was followed, the island would be free from coronavirus within three weeks. As a result, they said, the island could end its lockdown and open up parts of the local economy.
Speaking to The Mayo News, Prof McConnell said that there was no question as to whether this could be done, but it was up to the people of Achill and the HSE to embrace the idea.
“Within two to three weeks you would be able to say that no resident of Achill has the virus, and at this stage you can say Achill is virus free. Schools can open, pubs and restaurants can open, sport can start and people inside Achill can behave like there was no virus. The island goes back to what it like in early spring when there are no tourists,” he said.
The tricky part
Prof McConnell admitted the ‘tricky’ part was ensuring the virus would not be brought back onto the island, but he added this was where a comprehensive test-and-tracing programme would come into play.
“Testing could be done at the bridge in Achill. It sounds bizarre but it can be done. Test everyone in Achill and put a system in place to ensure that once Achill is virus free it stays virus free. There will be blips, and someone will arrive and bring the virus in, but people will be alert and the HSE should be on top of it and quickly surpress the virus again.
“The next step would be to say you will be happy to receive visitors as long as you ensure they are virus free.
“I have friends who have cottages in Achill who would love to be down there. Imagine if they are able to go down to Achill because they take the test from a doctor confirming they are virus free and letting them go. You could reopen an awful lot of Achill,” he said.
‘Outside the box’
A native of Shraheens on Achill Island, Dr McLoughlin explained that the results of a Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for Covid-19 can be revealed within 24 hours and frequent tests will ‘hunt down the virus’.
He accepted that without the HSE and the people of Achill coming on board, the pilot can not happen, but he feels that people need to ‘think outside the box’ to eliminate the virus.
“We are not public-health specialists but we are scientists, and the HSE might look at this and use it as an experiment in a geographical area to contain the coronavirus. If successful, it may be rolled out in other areas and across the country. We are just thinking outside the box and, as scientists, trying to be helpful and [find] a way out of this.”
The two scientists explained that they will be bringing their suggestions to Achill Tourism, which they said impressed them by the work it is currently doing during the pandemic.
Prof McConnell said that having organisations like Achill Tourism on board would be key to the success of any tracing programme.
Both Prof McConnell and Dr McLoughlin are of the opinion that contact tracing and continued testing is the key to combating Covid-19 in Ireland and getting the economy up and running again.
Prof McConnell explained that unless the virus is contained, the country will be paying €1 billion per year for PPE, and paying back the debt for the next 50 years.
“If you open up the economy now you run the risk of a serious resurgence and more unnecessary deaths and going back into lockdown. They eliminated the virus from Korea by mass testing and tracing, and they are a population of 30 million.
“If we invest millions into testing it will be a fraction of the cost for PPE and a tiny fraction of the debt to our economy. We will be saddled with loans from this pandemic and it could take 50 years to pay it off. We’ve got to get out of this fast, and this is the way to do it. Achill could show the way.”