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Covid could be more like common cold by next spring – expert

Pic by Joe Giddens

By Jane Kirby, PA Health Editor

Covid-19 could resemble the common cold by spring next year as people’s immunity to the virus is boosted by vaccines and exposure, a leading expert has said.

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 that there was continued exposure to the virus even in people who are vaccinated.

It comes 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 on Times Radio, Sir John said: “If you look at the trajectory we’re on, we’re a lot better off than we were six months ago.

“So 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.

“And 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.”

Sir John said “it’s pretty important that we don’t panic about where we are now”, adding that “the number of severe infections and deaths from Covid remains very low”.

He said Covid vaccines worked to prevent serious illness and death but “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”.

But 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”.

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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