In Depth

‘Living with Covid’: expert predictions for the next stage of pandemic

Government advisers fear summer wave will follow lifting of coronavirus restrictions

A fall in Covid-19 cases and “plateau” in hospital admissions across the UK have increased hopes of an imminent return to everyday life. 

The drop in reported new infections suggests that the Omicron wave may have finally “passed its peak”, said New Scientist. Latest government data shows that as of yesterday, the weekly tally of cases had dropped by almost 42% to just over 700,000.

Summer wave

Scientists advising the government have predicted a “fresh wave” of the variant in early summer as people “resume social activities and immunity wanes”, reported The Guardian. But the speedy rollout of the booster vaccine programme, and the comparatively less severe nature of Omicron, have boosted confidence that the UK will be able to cope.

Experts from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said they were “increasingly confident that the worst-case scenarios for the current wave are very unlikely to occur”, the newspaper continued.

Even so, scientists predicted at a meeting earlier this month that “hospital admissions in England will remain high for some time as a result of the very high number of infections and the continued risk of hospitalisation for the elderly and unvaccinated adults in particular”.

New mutations

“Looking at it from a UK point of view, there does appear to be light at the end of the tunnel,” David Nabarro, a World Health Organization special envoy for Covid-19, told Sky News on Monday. But the emergence of new mutations could make things “bumpy before we get to the end”, he said.

“So even though it’s possible to start imagining that the end of the pandemic is not far away, just everybody be ready for the possibility that there will be more variations and mutations coming along, or that there will be further challenges, other surges of even Omicron coming,” Nabarro added.

Experts told Live Science that the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant was “predictable” given the current rate of Covid-19 infection worldwide and the rate of mutation.

Not every variant will be “competitive” enough to become as widespread as the Omicron variant, or Delta before it, said Karen Mossman, a professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University in Ontario. But future variants could gain what the website described as a “competitive edge” by being “more transmissible than Omicron while causing less severe disease”.

“Viruses need to propagate and spread to new hosts,” Mossman explained. And the “most successful viruses do this by rapidly spreading without causing symptoms”, because the infected people continue circulating and spreading the bug. 

But on the other hand, she added, “a collection of mutations that provide a selective advantage may also induce more severe disease”.

For example, said Live Science, mutations that “grant the virus the ability to replicate incredibly quickly, or escape the clutches of the antibodies that prevent it from entering cells”, could also make the virus more likely to trigger severe infection.

Ebola, HIV and smallpox are all diseases that have not reduced in severity, despite existing for decades or even hundreds of years.

Living with Covid 

According to The Telegraph, Boris Johnson “wants to permanently repeal emergency coronavirus laws which have governed how the public can live for almost two years”.

With scientists predicting that the virus is unlikely to disappear completely, the government is reportedly keen to adopt an approach of “learning to live with Covid”.

Speculation is mounting that Plan B restrictions will end on 26 January, the review date set by the prime minister when the rules were imposed last month. Johnson is also said to be considering proposals to scrap legal requirements for infected people to self-isolate.

Under the plans, “official guidance would remain in place which encourages people to behave in certain ways, but would not result in fines or legal punishment if ignored”, said the newspaper. 

Government science advisers and healthcare leaders have cautioned against dropping Plan B restrictions “prematurely”, the Financial Times reported. 

In minutes from a Sage meeting on 7 January that were published on Friday, advisers warned that the current wave “still had the potential to continue to grow nationally”. 

The removal of Plan B restrictions before the peak had passed could lead to changes in behaviour and “increase the overall impact of this wave on hospitalisations”, the experts said.

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