Coronavirus could resemble the common cold by spring as people’s immunity to the virus is boosted by vaccines and exposure, a leading expert said today.
Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said the country “is over the worst” and things “should be fine” once winter has passed – adding there was continued exposure to the virus even in people who are vaccinated.
It came after Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert told a Royal Society of Medicine webinar that viruses tend to become weaker as they spread around.
She said: “We normally see that viruses become less virulent as they circulate more easily and there is no reason to think we will have a more virulent version of Sars-CoV-2.
“We tend to see slow genetic drift of the virus and there will be gradual immunity developing in the population as there is to all the other seasonal coronaviruses.”
Seasonal coronaviruses cause colds, and Dame Sarah said: “Eventually Sars-CoV-2 will become one of those.”
Asked about the comments, Sir John told Times Radio: “If you look at the trajectory we’re on, we’re a lot better off than we were six months ago.
“The pressure on the NHS is largely abated. If you look at the deaths from Covid, they tend to be very elderly people, and it’s not entirely clear it was Covid that caused all those deaths, so I think we’re over the worst of it now.
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“I think what will happen is, there will be quite a lot of background exposure to Delta (variant), we can see the case numbers are quite high, that particularly in people who’ve had two vaccines if they get a bit of breakthrough symptomatology, or not even symptomatology – if they just are asymptomatically infected, that will add to our immunity substantially, so I think we’re headed for the position Sarah describes probably by next spring would be my view.
“We have to get over the winter to get there but I think it should be fine.”
Dame Sarah’s comments were also echoed by Professor David Matthews, Professor of Virology at Bristol’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.
He told the Mirror: “Babies born today will probably catch it, bat it away, and by the time they’re 20/30/40-years-old they’ll have fought the virus and won dozens of times.
“This virus is probably not a killer in that it doesn’t kill babies, where as things like flu do. It will settle down to just a common cold.”
It comes as it emerged England’s confirmed Covid cases fell 22% in the week to September 15, hitting the lowest level since June, despite schools going back.
Some 161,923 people tested positive at least once for the virus in the seven-day period, a level not seen since the 136,372 cases recorded in the week to June 30.
The sudden drop in NHS Test and Trace figures could be driven partly by a 12% fall in testing, but not completely.
But Sir John also warned that, while Covid vaccines worked to prevent serious illness and death, they “don’t really effectively reduce the amount of transmission”.
This was the reason why in Israel the “reality is transmission in schools have gone way up and transmissions after holidays have gone way up”.
Sir John added: “If everybody’s expecting the vaccines and the boosters to stop that, they won’t. And it’s slightly a false promise.”
He said he agreed with England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, that the vast majority of children would get Covid without a vaccine, adding “this is now an endemic virus, it’ll circulate pretty widely”.
Prof Whitty warned this week that “quite a lot of damage” could still occur over the winter months.
Speaking as the jab was rolled out to 12 to 15-year-olds, he told MPs: “Let’s make an assumption that the great majority of children who’ve not currently had Covid-19 are going to get it at some point over the next period.
“It won’t be necessarily in the next two or three months but they will get it sooner or later.”
But addressing the Commons education committee, Prof Whitty added: “Vaccination will reduce that risk.”
Sir John said there are “no bad consequences” in children with the virus, adding that “I don’t think there’s any reason to panic”.
He continued: “I don’t think we’re going to have a lot of children in intensive care units. And in fact, the evidence is we don’t, we never have. And the likelihood of severe disease (is) quite small.”
Sir John said he believed the issue of long Covid “has been slightly overblown”, adding that “proper epidemiological studies” find the incidence of long Covid is “much lower than people had anticipated”.
England’s chief medical officer was facing questions from MPs about the inclusion of children in the Government’s Covid-19 vaccination programme.
When asked what proportion of children had already had Covid-19, he replied: “It varies by age and it does also vary by setting, but I think if we go for roughly half I think that is a reasonable stab at this.
“That’s half over the period of the entire epidemic to date, and we’ve got quite a way to run.
“We’re running into winter so there’s still quite a lot of damage that could be done in terms of disruption.”
England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam added that because the Delta variant is so infectious “we are not looking at a theoretical risk” of children aged 12 to 17 becoming infected.
He said: “I think it is really quite inevitable that they will be so at some point.”
Elsewhere, Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, said there had not been a “rapid increase” in Covid cases as schools have gone back.
The scientist, from Imperial College London, and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), added: “The challenge will be as we head into the autumn and winter.
“We would expect indoor mixing to increase and we’re still not at normal contact levels, but we’d also expect the vaccination currently rolled out in the country, the protective effect of that to wane very slightly, and so there is likely to be some upward pressure on case numbers.”
He said “case trends in the UK are cautiously encouraging in the sense that we have flat or even slightly declining case numbers”.
Prof Ferguson said as “long as we can roll out the booster programme and the vaccination of teenagers as promptly as possible, and I do think we’ll probably have to move to second doses in teenagers as well to get effective levels of protection against Delta, as long as that is done in a prompt way, I’m moderately optimistic.
“We can’t rule out some need for additional measures, but I very much doubt we will need to go back into lockdown again.”
The expert said there may need to be the reintroduction of some degree of social distancing or other measures if there was a “really significant uptick” in hospital admissions.
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