Laureate Professor Peter Doherty at 20/20 All-Actuaries Virtual Summit

Actuaries had the privilege of a personal conversation with Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty over lunch on Tuesday 12 August 2020 at the 20/20 All-Actuaries Virtual Summit. Jennifer Lang, as Convenor of the Institute’s COVID-19 Working Group, had the pleasure of guiding the conversation on COVID-19 – science, epidemiology, and how to make sense of it all. Doherty is overall upbeat, particularly about the prospects for a vaccine, and provided actuaries with many fascinating insights.

On the crucial issue of a vaccine, some of the current clinical trials are showing reasonable responses and have benefited from learnings for SARS-COV-1 vaccination development.

“It could well be that by early next year, maybe even the end of this year, we will start to see large scale vaccination programs starting,” Doherty said.

This is dependent on the vaccines proving to be safe and having at least 50 per cent efficacy. While 50 per cent is a “low bar” for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is conditional on safety and recognises the scale of the economic and health damage being done.

There should also be equitable and ready access to any vaccine. The global commitment to a vaccine, much of it led through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), means most vaccines currently in trial phases do not have restrictive licensing conditions.

Professor Peter Doherty

“There’s real determination there and it’s in everyone’s best interests anyway because we have to get the global economy back on track.”

Doherty believes Australia has good manufacturing facilities for drugs, although not currently for RNA vaccines (and one of more promising vaccines, by Moderna and outside of CEPI, is of this type). But solutions are being investigated and he is optimistic. 

A vaccine solution also requires enough of the population to take it up. “We think we need at least 60 per cent herd immunity with this virus,” Doherty commented for it to work.

Education, especially about how bad the illness caused by the virus can be, is a key part of encouraging take up of the vaccine by as many people as possible. Another important part is that developed countries and those with manufacturing capabilities, such as Australia, help developing countries and those without facilities.

A point Jennifer and Peter shared musings over is a communication challenge common to Scientists and Actuaries -how best to communicate risk. “In society in general there is not a good perception of the ideas of probability and relative risk,” Doherty remarked. While most Australians understand the idea of wearing a seat belt in a car, media and other influences can work against a considered understanding of issues.

Actuary Jennifer Lang and Laureate Professor Peter Doherty in the 20/20 All Actuaries Virtual Summit Plenary Session: COVID-19 – Understanding the Science, the Epidemiology and How to Make Sense of it All

On lessons (aside from overcoming the communication challenge), Doherty left Actuaries with at least three:

  • There needs to be greater consideration of how we provide guaranteed financial support for lower socioeconomic groups in emergency situations such as now – this is a key part of suppressing any spread;
  • We should be finding solutions for climate change in much the same way as this pandemic because it too is a global problem, although slower in speed, and in Doherty’s words “could be infinitely more dangerous than this [virus]”; and
  • Most importantly, we need to have an evidence-based view of reality and the courage to start afresh on building solutions if the evidence proves something is not working. The more we can all use evidence to inform our decisions, and as actuaries encourage others to do the same, the better the outcomes for all of our society.


A recording of the session is available to view for registered 20/20 All-Actuaries Virtual Summit attendees on the app.

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