Weddings and barmitzvahs may be back by the summer, says top immunologist

SAGE Task Force Professor Danny Altmann said he feels 'less bleak about the future than some'


Weddings and barmitzvahs could return this summer — though older community members should remain cautious, one of the UK’s leading immunologists has told the JC.

Professor Danny Altmann - who is part of the Immunology Task Force for SAGE, the top scientific panel advising the government on the pandemic - said he does “feel less bleak about the future than some” because the vaccines that are being deployed give us a “degree of headroom before protection is completely lost” against more worrying variants.

He told the JC: “We can see from data that vaccination will drive cases and transmission down. I think that there’s no excuse really for keeping full social distancing when we are immune and vaccinated.”

He cautioned, however, that “in terms of things like communal worship, while I’m quite impressed by the efficacy of the vaccines in older people, this is the group where there will be most variability in the quality of the response. So there may be a degree of caution for a while until we see whether transmission is genuinely bottoming out.”

Because of that, “it may take a while for life to look and feel completely normal. There may simply be some adaptations whereby the old normal never completely returns.”

It emerged last week that synagogues were preparing to open in time for Purim – but the professor, who, together with his wife, heads a lab at the Hammersmith Hospital Campus of Imperial College London, warned that hesitancy among some to be given the vaccine would need to be tackled before full communal life could return.

Prof Altmann said he has tried to reach out to the strictly Orthodox communities on this subject.

He said: “I was disturbed by 
the data I saw from the Charedi 
community, here and in Israel 
about herd immunity.

“This is a de facto version of the original debate about whether to ‘let rip’ and build herd immunity: there’s no escaping the horrific reality that this immunity comes at a cost of massively exacerbated hospitalisations and deaths - a crying shame.”

He added that any group said to have achieved a degree of immunity should not be complacent because “if there are variants we will need a higher level of herd immunity”.

How worrying are these variants? “The South Africa variant does worry me: the E484K mutation really dampens vaccine-induced immunity. Luckily the vaccines are so amazing that there’s a degree of headroom before protection is completely lost. I worry that we seem to perseverate just on closing borders to imported viruses. We have home-grown versions already here - we so need to raise our game on test and trace to keep on top of them.”

Prof Altmann and his team have also been focusing on long Covid and what can be done about it. His experience of working on viruses in Brazil, Africa and South East Asia (including Zika and Chikungunya) has given him a head start on the problem.

“Health systems in these places have been devastated due to the need for long-term care for chronic side effects from such viruses. This is what worries me about long Covid – that people will need ongoing help. That’s why my focus is on vaccinating and monitoring vaccinations in the future, as well as keeping up genetic monitoring.”

A biochemist by training, Prof Altmann’s love affair with immunology began during his PhD at Bristol University in the mid 1980s. “At the time the Weizmann Institute was at the vanguard of immunology and I opted to do my post-doctoral training there,” he said. “From there I worked at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and Medical Research Council.

‘For decades I have had a 
passion for immune responses, across a global health landscape, and so, like many of my colleagues, when a call to arms came with 
Covid-19, we were champing at the bit to get our teeth into it.”

Jews and immunology have a long history according to Prof Altmann: “Jewish scientists have always been very prominent in immunology - you could fill several books writing about all the great thinkers.

“People allude to some kind of atavistic yearning or skillset for Talmudic dissection that fits well for this kind of science!”

Prof Altmann is the secular, 
atheist son of Holocaust survivors from Germany. Growing up in north-west London, he attended Mathilda Marks School and JFS.

At home, Jewish life was paramount and all-encompassing but without much religious observance. However, every Friday night he would go to Belsize Square Synagogue, and after the service the family tradition was to head straight to the former Cosmo restaurant on the Finchley Road for weiner schnitzel and a good reisling.

Talk of restaurant dinners begs the question: when can we get back to our lives again?

“If you ask me where we are 
heading out of this. We won’t kiss goodbye to Covid.

“Will it be mild and come back each year? Will we learn to live with a certain number of deaths a year?

“It’s a harsh, unforgiving virus.” There’s no room for anyone to gloat.”

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