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COVID and restrictions are here to stay. Here's why

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Ambulance workers attend a COVID-19 patient suffering oxygen problems in Lomas de Zamora, Argentina, June 10, 2021.
Ambulance workers attend a COVID-19 patient suffering oxygen problems in Lomas de Zamora, Argentina, June 10, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko
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It's unlikely COVID-19 will ever be eradicated but like the flu before it, it may become another manageable illness, an expert told Euronews.

Professor Roland Kao, chair of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, told Euronews that "there's certainly a possibility" that the world will never be rid of COVID-19 but that "it may end up being milder."

"In the same way that the flu pandemic that occurred over 100 years ago had three waves of infections over each winter and then it was milder afterwards, this may happen," he added, stressing however that "we're not exactly sure what the next year will bring."

"The anticipation is that if we wait long enough, it will get better, but we may never get rid of it. And that would be OK. it would be another illness which we need to think about," he continued.

More than 3.7 million people have lost their life to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic with over 174.4 million known to have contracted the disease.

Attack of the variants

Most of the Western world has had to contend with three waves of the disease, spurred by the emergence of variants just as vaccines started being rolled out.

In Britain, remaining COVID-19 restrictions — first imposed in January to curb the spread of the Alpha (British) variant — were meant to be lifted on June 21 but the government has already suggested that a delay is in the works.

The UK has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world with more than 77% of the population having received a least one dose, and more than 54% now fully inoculated, according to official data.

Yet, over the previous week, more than 44,000 new cases were recorded, a 63% rise on the previous seven-day period.

The jump in infections is blamed on the Delta variant — formerly known as the Indian variant — which is thought to be up to 60% more transmissible than the original strain of the virus. According to Public Health England, 94% of current cases in the UK that have been sequenced and genotyped are Delta.

"With numbers of Delta variants cases on the rise across the country, vaccination is our best defence," Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said in a statement.

"However, while vaccination reduces the risk of severe disease, it does not eliminate it," she added.

Vaccines strike back

Vaccines, Kao concurred, are particularly effective at preventing the risk of severe disease. Evidence also shows that they do offer some degree of protection against contracting the disease and partial protection against onwards transmission.

A fourth wave is thus not impossible but it is likely to look much different than the previous ones.

In the UK, the number of confirmed cases has jumped 63% week-on-week, but hospitalisations have so far increased by just over 7%. The number of deaths has ticked up by less than 2%.

"The big thing is that as long as the vaccines we are using appear to have at least some protection against severe disease, then it (a fourth wave) will not be as bad," Kao explained.

"There could be many cases, but the number of deaths may be lower and the number of intensive care hospitalisations may be lower. If that is the case, we could have a large wave but without straining the health care system, without it causing a lot of deaths," he added.

The epidemiologist cautioned however that "we're not quite at the stage where we know for sure."

The phantom menace

With the virus mutating and the vaccines' unequal global rollout, there is always the risk that more variants, more virulent and resistant to treatments, will emerge.

Just over six months after the vaccines were first deployed, about 12.3% of the global population has received at least one dose, according to Our World In Data, the bulk of whom live in rich nations. The global population is not expected to have been vaccinated until at least the end of 2022.

But one positive thing to keep in mind, Kao highlighted, "is that we obviously have multiple successful vaccines, more vaccines that approach protection from a different way, which means that the more chance you have of some of the vaccines being more highly effective."

Vaccine manufacturers are also looking at the variants and ways to create boosters to combat them.

"With all that much effort going on, the chances go up that we can not just detect variants of concern more rapidly but respond to them more rapidly as well," he said.

However, eradicating the disease fully is highly unlikely.

"For a vaccine to do that, what you would need to do is deploy it around the world sufficiently, completely and rapidly that you wouldn't give the virus time to develop variants fast enough to get around it," he explained.

"It is possible, but it would require a certain level of worldwide coordination which we do not currently have because the virus will always keep evolving," he added.

What this means, in effect, is that until such time the disease is tamed into a milder version, some restrictions are likely to stick around for a significant while longer, including the obligation to wear face masks in certain settings.

"Long-distance travel is obviously a big thing for making these variants spread around the world rapidly. So more restrictions or requirements like quarantine or testing upon arrival, those kind of things might also potentially continue," he said.