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By Mary Archer on

Closing our museums

We recently announced the temporary closure of our five museums in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Our Chair of Trustees and former chair of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Dame Mary Archer, reflects on this news.

Closing our five museums and the National Collections Centre to the public is not a decision we have taken lightly. We are used to igniting curiosity and displaying wonders of science, engineering, technology and medicine to more than 5 million visitors who visit us 362 days of the year.

Poignantly in Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries at the Science Museum we have a large display about infectious diseases, including malaria, TB, polio and influenza. Our curators are already having sombre thoughts about how this outbreak will be recorded in the collection when this outbreak finally comes to an end.

Part of the Bloom artwork, which represents how infectious diseases spread, from Medicine; The Wellcome Galleries at the Science Museum.

But closing our museums is the right thing to do for our visitors, our staff and our volunteers at this stage in the COVID-19 outbreak.

We are not alone, of course, in having to choose between the importance of keeping the wonders of our scientific, cultural and artistic heritage accessible to everyone and the duty of care we owe our staff and visitors. Many museums across the world have closed or will close in the coming days.

The number of infected people is increasing rapidly. By 16 March, there were 164,837 cases and 6,470 deaths confirmed worldwide. Global spread has been rapid, with 146 countries now having reported at least one case.

This is a perfect storm. It’s a very nasty new virus that none of us has previously been exposed to, so none of us has immunity to it.

Model of influenza virus magnified 5 million times. Part of the Science Museum Group Collection.

We have to go back to the catastrophic Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 to find a comparable threat, and although we know vastly more about the underlying biomedical science than we did then, the preventative measures we need to take are just the same, until there is a breakthrough in treatment or vaccination.

This was brought home to me personally as one of the SMG trustees, Professor Ajit Lalvani is currently recovering from COVID-19. Not only that but he is – ironically – one of the most distinguished infectious disease scientists in the world.

In his lab at the St Mary’s Hospital Campus of Imperial College London, he works alongside epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson, author of the report that changed government policy so dramatically on Monday, and virologist Professor Wendy Barclay.

For many years now, Ajit and his team have been investigating the immune system’s response to flu and TB viruses – until now the two most serious respiratory infections.

During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, he discovered that the levels of anti-influenza T-cells in people’s blood just before they were exposed to swine flu predicted who would be protected from developing symptoms.

This provided the blueprint for a universal flu vaccine to prevent future flu pandemics. By applying a similar approach to people exposed to COVID-19, Ajit now hopes to identify which immune responses enable the majority of COVID-19-infected people to experience only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.  This crucial information will guide the rational development and testing of COVID-19 vaccines.

Prefilled syringes of Influenza vaccine, for 2000-2001 strains. Part of the Science Museum Group Collection.

We need to reduce our personal risk by every measure: handwashing, social distancing, household isolation when there is one case in the house, closure of places where people congregate.

In Cambridge University Hospitals (where for a decade I was chair of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust) and in hospitals up and down the country, they are emptying beds as far as is possible to cope with the coming influx of people who will need hospital treatment or intensive care and installing as many extra intensive care beds as they can, while doing all they can to protect their staff.

Several candidate vaccines have been produced already, and one has gone into first-in-human trials in the United States.

But it’s still likely to be 12-18 months before a vaccine is widely available because this will be given to healthy people to stop them getting the disease, so we need to be sure there are no bad side effects.

This may feel like you’re in a science fiction movie, but it’s for real. The nation must go to war against this virus.