‘Living with COVID’: where the pandemic could go next

LONDON/CHICAGO, Aug 1 (Reuters) – As the third winter of the coronavirus pandemic looms in the northern hemisphere, scientists are warning weary governments and populations to prepare for more waves of COVID-19.

In the United States alone, there could be up to a million infections a day this winter, Chris Murray, director of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent modeling group from the University of Washington which is tracking the pandemic, told Reuters. That would be about double the current daily count.

Across the UK and Europe, scientists are predicting a series of COVID waves as people spend more time indoors during the colder months, this time with almost no masking or social distancing restrictions in square.

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However, while cases could rise again in the coming months, deaths and hospitalizations are unlikely to increase with the same intensity, experts said, aided by vaccination and recall campaigns, a previous infection , milder variants, and the availability of highly effective COVID treatments.

“The people most at risk are those who have never seen the virus, and there’s hardly anyone left,” Murray said.

These predictions raise new questions about when countries will emerge from the COVID emergency phase and enter a state of endemic disease, where communities with high vaccination rates see smaller outbreaks, possibly on a seasonal basis.

Many experts had predicted that the transition would begin in early 2022, but the arrival of the highly mutated Omicron variant of the coronavirus has disrupted those expectations.

“We have to put aside the idea of ​​’is the pandemic over? ‘” said Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He and others see COVID morphing into an endemic threat that is still causing a heavy burden of disease.

“Someone once told me that the definition of endemicity is that life gets a little worse,” he added.

The potential wildcard remains whether a new variant will emerge that will surpass the currently dominant Omicron sub-variants.

If this variant also causes more severe disease and is better able to evade previous immunity, that would be a “worst-case scenario”, according to a recent European report from the World Health Organization (WHO).

“All scenarios (with new variants) point to the potential for a future large wave as bad or worse than the epidemic waves of 2020/2021,” the report, based on a model from Imperial College of London.

CONFONDING FACTORS

Many disease experts interviewed by Reuters said it has become much more difficult to make predictions for COVID, as many people rely on rapid home tests that are not reported to health officials. from the government, which masks infection rates.

BA.5, the subvariant of Omicron that is currently causing a spike in infections in many areas, is extremely transmissible, which means that many patients hospitalized for other illnesses can test positive and be counted among the serious cases, even if COVID-19 is not the source of their distress.

The scientists said other unknowns complicating their predictions include whether a combination of vaccination and COVID infection – so-called hybrid immunity – provides better protection for people, as well as the effectiveness of campaigns. reminder.

“Anyone who says they can predict the future of this pandemic is either being overconfident or a liar,” said David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Experts are also closely watching developments in Australia, where a resurgent flu season combined with COVID is overwhelming hospitals. They say it’s possible Western countries will see a similar trend after several quiet flu seasons.

“If it happens there, it can happen here. Let’s prepare for a good flu season,” said John McCauley, director of the Worldwide Influenza Center at the Francis Crick Institute in London.

The WHO said every country has yet to tackle new waves with all the tools in the pandemic arsenal – from vaccinations to interventions, such as testing and social distancing or masking.

Israel’s government recently halted routine COVID testing of travelers at its international airport, but is ready to resume the practice “in days” if faced with a large spike, said service chief Sharon Alroy-Preis. public health in the country.

“When there’s a wave of infections, we have to put on masks, we have to test ourselves,” she said. “It’s living with COVID.”

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Reporting by Jennifer Rigby and Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Bill Berkrot

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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