Britain is once again experiencing a holiday season hit by waves of Covid-19 infections. Last year, Christmas and New Years were marred by the appearance of the Alpha variant. This time, it was Omicron who shot up the number of cases. Christmas cancellations have swept through UK restaurants, pubs and clubs and left the country on the brink of another grim New Year as the NHS once again warns it is threatened with being overwhelmed by numbers growing number of critically ill patients.
The storyline has raised concerns that this now represents the shape of Christmases to come. Social restrictions and threats of lockdown could become our normal party dish.
It is a daunting prospect. But is it realistic? Are we right to draw close parallels between this Christmas and last year? These are key questions because, by trying to answer them, we can also find clues about the likely trajectory of the entire pandemic.
How comparable is this year’s outbreak to that of last winter?
At first glance, the two years look surprisingly similar, with the number of cases having skyrocketed in just a few weeks in the UK. However, hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 remain very low so far this year, with the latest research suggesting that the new variant appears to trigger fewer cases of severe illness than its viral predecessors.
Scientists generally viewed these outcome studies as good news, but also recommended caution. The daily number of Covid-19 cases continues to rise – they hit a record 122,000 on Friday – and it was estimated that 1.7 million people were infected with Covid-19 in the UK last week.
Are there any notable differences in the ages of people affected by Omicron?
Importantly, most of the new cases have been in young adults, which has led some researchers to warn that if Omicron begins to affect more older – more vulnerable – people, hospitalizations could increase further. On the other hand, a large number of people – especially the elderly – have now received vaccines and boosters and will have gained considerable protection against Omicron. It remains to be seen how these different factors affect the numbers. At the moment, the data is still being collected and it is too early to be sure. At the same time, political decisions to protect public health still have to be taken.
The problem is highlighted by infectious disease epidemiologist Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh. “There is inevitably a lag between infection and hospitalization,” he told the newspaper. Nature Last week. “But in the meantime, political decisions have to be made, and it is not easy.”
Is the virus at risk of losing its power to cause serious illness?
Many scientists believe the evidence now suggests that this idea may be correct. Recent studies in Scotland, England and South Africa all point in this direction. “My hunch is that this variant is the first step in a process by which the virus adapts to the human population to produce milder symptoms,” says Dr Julian Tang, professor of respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester. . “In a way, it’s to the benefit of the virus if it affects people in a way that they don’t get too sick – because then they can walk around and mingle with society and spread the disease even more. virus. “
So, will the Covid-19 end up behaving like the flu?
Some health officials have predicted that Covid-19 could end up behaving like the flu, requiring a new vaccine to deal with the new strains that appear every year. However, Professor Martin Hibberd, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, argues that coronaviruses – like those that already cause colds – don’t behave this way: “They don’t appear as new strains every year. . The reason we catch colds in the winter is because our immunity to coronaviruses doesn’t last very long. And this virus appears to be more similar to those that cause the common cold. In other words, we may still have to think about administering vaccines to protect against Covid-19 every year because immunity will always slip. “
That doesn’t mean we will be faced with “pessimism” for the next five years, Tang adds. “I think the virus will come out of the pandemic strain very soon and become milder, more transmissible to the point where you may just have to think about vaccinating the most vulnerable members of the population.”