Photography: Alberto Pezzali / AP
The current spate of Covid-19 cases in Britain appears to peak at a lower level than previous outbreaks of the Omicron variant of the disease, the researchers revealed.
The news is encouraging, although scientists have also warned that a further wave of the disease could overwhelm the nation before the end of the year. ‘We have to be vigilant and monitor the data very carefully, all the time,’ said Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh.
According to last week’s ONS survey, Covid case numbers have flattened or are decreasing in five of the nine English regions, as well as Northern Ireland and Scotland. At the same time, children now have the lowest prevalence of the disease for a few weeks.
And while cases are still on the rise between the ages of 50-69, there has been a decline in prevalence among the over 70s. “Hopefully it will soon be mirrored by a decline in hospitalizations,” Woolhouse added.
But if the near-term outlook of avoiding a new wave of Covid-19 cases looks promising enough, the long-term forecasts are less reassuring due to the uncertainties involved. “The problem is we now have a soup of about 300 existing Covid-19 variants,” said Professor Andrew Lee, of Sheffield University. “At the same time, different populations have different levels of immunity to Covid-19. This makes it really difficult to predict how future waves will behave ”.
Scientists have also warned that the nation faces the prospect of a parallel flu epidemic this winter, which could be fueled by low levels of immunity in a population that has lost protection during restrictions due to the Covid pandemic. This was raised last week when it was revealed that influenza cases had risen in England, although levels are relatively low overall.
However, these fears were allayed by Professor Francois Balloux, of University College London. “The only good news is that the flu vaccine that is now being administered turns out to be really well matched to the strains that have started to circulate in the population. That means it should provide good protection and contain hospitalizations.”
Predictions of future disease outbreaks such as Covid or the flu needed to be treated with care, Woolhouse added. “This time last year, when we had quite high levels of the Delta variant of Covid-19, expert after expert predicted that really huge waves of the disease would sweep across Britain in the fall. And it never happened.”
Instead, the nation was hit with an entirely new variant, the Omicron, which affected an unprecedented number of people last winter. Since then, new sub-variants of Omicron have appeared and these are circulating with a version, Omicron BA 2.75.2, seen as a serious potential threat. “However, it is still relatively rare in the UK,” Woolhouse added.
However, scientists accept that the risk of a completely new variant, with severe pathogenic impacts, can appear at any time. “As long as Covid remains mild for most people and doesn’t overwhelm health systems, governments will be able to ride the wave,” Lee added. “But if we get a more pathogenic and severe variant, it will bring about a very different response. And this remains a risk, without a doubt “.
Balloux said the prospect of the appearance of a new lethal variant remains scientists’ greatest fear of Covid and will require constant surveillance by health authorities and doctors, he told the Observer. “However, unless something terrible happens and a deadly new variant appears, I think in terms of Covid, things should be better than last winter and the previous winter,” she said.