“Living with COVID”: Where the epidemic could go next

LONDON/CHICAGO (Reuters) – As the third winter of the coronavirus pandemic approaches in the northern hemisphere, scientists are warning governments and exhausted residents alike to prepare for more waves of COVID-19.

In the United States alone, there could be as many as 1 million infections a day this winter, Chris Murray, president of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent modeling group at the University of Washington that tracks the epidemic. to Reuters. This would be about double the current daily total.

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

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However, while cases may rise again in the coming months, deaths and hospitalizations are unlikely to rise by the same intensity, experts said, aided by vaccination and booster campaigns, previous infections, 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 is almost no one left,” Murray said.

These projections raise new questions about when countries will emerge from the COVID emergency phase into an endemic state, with communities with higher vaccination rates experiencing smaller outbreaks, possibly on a seasonal basis.

Many experts expected transmission to begin in early 2022, but the arrival of the highly mutated Omicron variant of the coronavirus has hampered those expectations.

“We need to put aside the notion of ‘is the epidemic over?'” said Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He and others see COVID turn into an endemic threat that continues to cause a significant 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 emerges that competes outside of the currently dominant sub-variables of Omicron.

If this variant also causes more serious disease and is better able to evade previous immunity, this would be the “worst-case scenario”, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization in Europe.

The report, which was based on a model from Imperial College London, said: “All scenarios (with new variables) indicate the possibility of a large future wave with a bad or worse level of the epidemic waves 2020/2021.”

External factors

Many disease experts interviewed by Reuters said that making predictions for COVID is becoming more difficult, with many people relying on rapid home tests that are not reported to government health officials, obscuring infection rates.

BA.5, the Omicron subvariable that currently causes infection peaks in many areas, is considered highly transmissible, meaning that many patients hospitalized for other illnesses may test positive and be counted among the severe cases, even if they are not COVID-19 is the source of their plight.

The scientists said other unknowns that complicate their predictions include whether a combination of vaccination and COVID infection – so-called hybrid immunity – provides greater protection for people, as well as how effective the booster campaigns are.

“Anyone who says they can predict the future of this pandemic is either overconfident or 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 the escalating flu season with COVID is sweeping hospitals. They say it’s possible for Western countries to see a similar pattern after several quiet flu seasons.

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

The World Health Organization has said that every country still needs to deal with new waves with all the tools in the pandemic warehouse – from vaccines to interventions, such as testing and social distancing or masking.

Sharon Alroy-Bresse, the head of the country’s public health service, said the Israeli government recently halted routine COVID tests for travelers at its international airport, but is ready to resume the practice “within days” if it faces a significant increase.

“When there is a wave of infection, we need to wear masks, we need to test ourselves,” she said. “That’s living with COVID.”

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(Reporting by Jennifer Rigby and Julie Steenhuisen) Additional reporting by Maayan Lobel. Editing by Michael Gershberg and Bill Bercrot

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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