While Covid cases remain at their highest level since the start of the pandemic, putting great pressure on the NHS, there is hope on the horizon.
Hospital admissions have roughly doubled over the past week, but the increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths is far less severe than at previous peaks in January last year and April 2020.
Research has shown that Omicron appears to cause less serious illness than previous variants.
England chief physician Sir Chris Whitty told a Downing Street briefing on Tuesday that Omicron did not lead to an increase in deaths, but warned that the number of elderly people was rising and that they were “much more likely to be hospitalized”.
On Friday, the UK recorded a further 179,756 cases, a decrease from the previous 24 hours, but the 16th day in a row that the number peaked at 100,000.
NHS staff have warned they could face a “month of insanity” if cases continue to rise, with eight new Nightingale ‘surge hubs’ set up to deal with any increase in patients.
We asked some experts for their opinion on how the pandemic may develop in the coming months and years.
How will the virus develop?
Studies have shown that Omicron fights to bypass t-cell immunity induced by vaccines or previous infection, which helps protect against severe Covid.
There is also evidence to suggest that Omicron is less likely to infect lung tissue and increase the risk of serious illness or death, with some experts believing that the effects of the virus will be milder.
It told Professor Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine from the University of East Anglia I: “In the end, it will just be another cause of the common cold. And we’ll treat it like a common cold, but it’s not going to happen just yet.
“As the disease becomes endemic, and as we are exposed to it repeatedly throughout the rest of our lives, it will become less and less severe.
“Not because of something that the virus does, but because of this build-up of immunity – t-cell immunity – that protects us more and more from serious illness.
“If we get another new variant with it, it will probably cause an increase in infections, but the likelihood is that it will be even less serious in its results than Omicron, which in itself is less serious in its results than Delta.”
Dr. Julian Tang, an honorary lecturer and clinical virologist in respiratory science at the University of Leicester, also believes the virus is evolving into a milder version similar to the common cold coronavirus.
He told I: “I think Covid will develop itself out of the pandemic strain of the virus.
»But the schedule is uncertain. You may occasionally see new variants that are more severe than Omicron, but it may not last very long, as we saw with Beta and Gamma. “
Dr. Joe Grove, a virologist at MCR University of Glasgow Center, said that although there are “encouraging signs” that the virus is less clinically serious, there is “no guarantee” it will continue to become milder.
He told I: “There is some research that we and other groups across the UK and the world have been doing over the last two or three weeks that shows that the tip protein has changed in a fundamental way.
“It’s changed the way it enters the cells of our bodies. The molecular change is probably what supports this change in severity.
“It has probably switched to more of an upper respiratory tract infection than a lower respiratory tract infection. That’s probably one of the reasons it’s less serious.
“If you have a virus that kills 99 percent of the people it infects, then there is strong evolutionary pressure for the virus to become milder and not kill people quite as aggressively, because then it stops the virus from spreading.
“But Covid is still killing a minority of individuals. There’s not really an evolutionary pressure to be milder, so we’ve just been lucky in that regard.”
Do we still need restrictions?
Boris Johnson has insisted that current Plan B restrictions should remain in the UK to protect the NHS, but that we need to “find a way to live with the virus”.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have introduced stricter controls on social gatherings, pubs and nightclubs to curb the spread of Covid.
Prof Paul Hunter said it is “difficult to be final” this month on when the Covid curbs can be stopped, but believes they should end soon.
He said: “But once we are over the top, in the end, we will have a lot of people who will be vaccinated and many of them will also have had Omicron infections. It will – for a period of time until we get the next variant – suppress the transmission quite significantly.
“Eventually we will start to see the pressure on the hospitals subside and I think when we are out of this peak we need to get on with our lives normally.
“When we get over the top and it’s starting to get normal again, and the levels when we started opening up again, I think that’s probably the point where we’ll say we do not actually have to go back to it. kind of restrictions anymore. ”
He said we are likely to live with Covid “forever”, with problems likely next winter, but hopefully less pressure on healthcare than at present.
Dr. Tang said: “Living with the virus – people did. Between July’s Freedom Day and the advent of Omicron last month, people were quite content to live with 50-60,000 cases a day and about 1-200 deaths a day.
“People were already living with it. We’ve been there before. This is nothing new. ”
But Professor Martin Mckee of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said the phrase “living with the virus” would leave people “with deep insecurity”.
Talking to That Mirror last month, Professor Mckee said: “Who can plan to go to the West End Theater if they do not know if there will be a cast on stage, it is to live with the virus”.
And Dr. Grove said: “In the UK, it seems we have a higher threshold for straining the NHS than some nations. Some other nations across Asia and Europe have been more aggressive than this and crushed the infections to the point where they do not have strained or shouldered much from the pandemic.
“In the UK, we seem to be taking a more relaxed approach. But it’s a politician’s decision, it’s up to people to make their own opinions about it.
“A year ago with the British variant, Alpha, I found myself working in the lab over Christmas and New Year. I did not expect to do it again this year, and yet I did. I am not a betting person, but I would not bet that I would do the same next year. “
Do we still need vaccinations?
Only vulnerable people may need to be vaccinated if Covid develops to become milder, some experts believe.
The cost and labor of administering current vaccines to new variants “will not be worth the hassle”, according to Dr. Seaweed.
He said: “I do not think we will need vaccinations forever. Once the virus becomes mild enough as the common cold, we do not need vaccines anymore, except perhaps for someone who is more vulnerable, as we do for influenza each year.
“We can not keep vaccinating everyone every six months. It is impossible to maintain, especially when the virus is constantly changing and the vaccines we use are still the same vaccines that build up to the Wuhan virus for almost two years ago.
“If you use a vaccine that is two years old for a fourth-generation variant – Alpha, Delta, Omicron and the next variant – it will be even less effective.”
Prof Paul Hunter said we may need to provide additional boosters and vaccines to more vulnerable people for a few more years.
“I can not for the life of me see us make these huge population increases as we are doing at the moment,” he said.
“It’s likely we can have a new round, but in five years I can not see ourselves doing that.”
Dr. Grove believes we will have to continue vaccinating “for a while”, adding that Covid had just “made a really dramatic change in the way it infects cells, and there is no reason to believe that it will not adjust its strategy further. ”
He said: “Omicron has taught us that viruses can exhibit a lot of immune evasion and escape immunity from vaccination and infection.
“Ultimately, we may be on a journey towards Covid being seasonally diagnosed as a common cold or flu. But there is still a lot of balancing going on.”
How will the pandemic end?
In November, sources said I The government did not expect the pandemic to be declared over for at least another year, with the transition depending on the effectiveness of vaccines, new antiviral treatments and new variants.
Prof Hunter believes the pandemic will have “very different endings in very different places” with some countries currently better placed than others.
He said: “South Africa, which still has a relatively low level of vaccination but has had four major waves of infection, will have fairly reasonable t-cell immunity to serious disease.
“They are likely to see another increase at some point, which will be associated with even fewer hospitalizations than we have had in this wave.
“In the other extreme, we have New Zealand, which has done quite well on the vaccine front, but not had much infection, and I suppose they will not come to life normally until they have had an ugly outbreak.
“Those of us in Europe where we have done really well with the vaccines and many of our countries have had high levels of infection, we want to be somewhere in between.”
Covid may develop us out of the pandemic before vaccinations are delivered to the global population, some believe.
Dr. Tang said: “Overall, I think … on a global scale, a longer time horizon of 12-24 months, I think this virus will develop us out of the pandemic and that we may not have to vaccinate people against a milder form of the virus going forward.
“For example, but when we have reached, for example, Gabon with two doses of the vaccine, and the virus then is a variant that is so mild that it does not put anyone in the hospital and just causes common cold or runny nose like f eg we watch every season so you do not have to vaccinate them.
“We do not see the variant going back in time to reappear later. Otherwise we would have seen it now. Alpha has gone pretty much. Delta is going very fast, the Wuhan virus is basically gone.”