Britain is now going through its third major wave of Covid-19 infections this year. According to the ONS Infection Survey released last week, about 1.7 million people in the UK are estimated to have been infected in the week ending 18 June, a 23% rise on the previous week. This follows a 43% jump the previous week. The figures raise several important questions about how the nation will fare in the coming months as it struggles to contain the disease.
Most scientists and statisticians pin the latest jump on two fast-spreading Omicron sub-variants: BA.4 and BA.5. Crucially, two other countries – Portugal and South Africa – have experienced major jumps in numbers of cases due to these two sub-variants.
“The waves in these countries have since peaked and neither resulted in a major increase in severe disease. Nevertheless, we should note there were some increases in hospitalisations,” said John Edmunds, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “The rise we are experiencing now is certainly not good news but it does not look, at present, like it has the potential to lead to disaster.”
This point was backed by Stephen Griffin, associate professor at Leeds University’s school of medicine “We are in a better place now than in 2020 and 2021 due to the UK vaccine programme,” he said. However, he warned the level of post-infections complications – long Covid – was troubling. “It is abundantly clear the government’s living with Covid strategy lacks long-term provision for wellbeing.”
The government is already committed to vaccinating the over-65s, frontline health and social workers and vulnerable younger people in the autumn. However, the health and social care secretary Sajid Javid last week hinted that this might be extended to include all those over 50. The move would improve protection against Covid-19 at a time when immunity will have waned in much of the population.
However, the type of vaccine to be given is not yet settled – with many scientists insisting it should be able to provide protection not just against the original Wuhan strain of Covid-19 but also against its most prevalent recent variant, Omicron. Moderna has developed such a vaccine, for example.
“Omicron looks to be extremely fit,” said James Naismith, of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford. “We are now seeing different strains of it appearing, not a wholesale switch like the one we saw from Delta to Omicron. So I think it is perhaps unlikely we will see a completely new Omega strain, which makes it sensible to continue to target Omicron.”
Sars-cov-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, is not the first coronavirus that has been found to affect human beings. Other members of this class of virus cause mild respiratory illnesses and one day Covid-19 may reach a similar, relatively safe status in the population – though not in the near future, says Prof Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University.
“That situation will arise when the virus is circulating quite freely and people get infected multiple times as children, and so, by the time they get to be adults, they have actually built up pretty solid immunity – certainly against serious disease. However, it’s going to take a long time before we live in a population where most of us have had multiple exposures as children. That is decades away, though that does not mean we will be faced with severe public health problems for all that time. These problems will diminish – though there will be bumps on the way.
“However,” Woolhouse added, “this is not going to settle down properly in my lifetime.”