Infectious disease experts have warned that it’s too soon for the public to stop taking steps to avoid Covid-19 infection, despite health officials claiming it’s inevitable most people will catch the seemingly milder omicron variant.
Many countries now have few or no Covid-related restrictions remaining, as surging case numbers are weighed against vaccination rates. The leaders of some European countries have called for the coronavirus crisis to begin its shift from pandemic to endemic, and be treated like the seasonal flu.
In the U.K., where new cases are beginning to ease from record-high levels after a December surge, the government is reportedly drawing up plans to completely scrap its emergency Covid laws, including self-isolation requirements, according to The Telegraph.
Official data published on Monday showed that around 98% of the U.K. population now has antibody protection against the virus, either through vaccination or infection. Just over 80% of the country’s population has received two doses of a Covid vaccine.
There is a consensus among many that the highly transmissible omicron variant is so infectious, everybody will eventually contract Covid. White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted the strain will “find just about everybody,” CNN reported last week.
However, many scientists are still urging the public to do what they can to avoid infection.
Professor Liam Smeeth, a physician and director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CNBC that while omicron appears inherently milder, scientific knowledge is still “not as complete as we’d like” on how the heavily mutated variant will impact vulnerable individuals.
“If the vulnerable do become quite unwell with omicron — and some of them will — if that all happens at once, if we just let it rip through society, then any health system in the world would get overwhelmed,” he said in a phone call.
“And that is a very, very grim thought — so grim as to be quite terrifying. It’s clear that most people don’t get very unwell with omicron, but we don’t have clear evidence that that’s true of everyone.”
Smeeth added that omicron’s increased transmissibility meant it still posed big risks, despite appearing to cause milder symptoms.
“Because it’s so infectious, it literally could be millions of very unwell people all at the same time, which no health system could cope with,” he explained.
“You’ve also got the fact that people are going to be off sick — it doesn’t cause serious illness, but it does cause enough that people need to stay at home [to recover]. And if that happens across the whole of society all at once, even in the space of a few weeks, that means the police are going to struggle, supermarkets aren’t going to open, the health system’s not going to function — there would be pretty big social disruption going on.”
“So even if it’s reasonably mild, there are reasons to want it to happen more gradually,” he said.
Public health officials have also warned about the risk of “long Covid.” The WHO has previously estimated that between 10% to 20% of Covid patients experience lingering symptoms for months following infection. These prolonged symptoms can include persistent fatigue, breathlessness, brain fog and depression.
In the U.K., where Covid isolation times were cut down to five days on Monday, Smeeth said he believed the government was implementing a “pretty sensible, gradual stepping down.”
Meanwhile, Philip Anyanwu, a lecturer in public health at Cardiff University’s School of Medicine, noted a perception that the omicron variant is making Covid less of a threat was becoming more common among the general population.
“Regardless of it [causing milder symptoms], I think we still need to keep those measures that helped us get through, especially wearing face masks, social distancing and frequently washing our hands,” he said via telephone.
He argued it was too soon for the public to stop trying to reduce Covid-related risks, particularly in the winter — the “most crucial period in terms of infectious disease burden.”
Deepti Gurdasani, senior lecturer in epidemiology at Queen Mary University of London, said via Twitter on Sunday that living with the virus “doesn’t mean doing nothing and letting ‘mostly the old and vulnerable die.'”
“People wearing high-grade masks and good ventilation aren’t restrictive but save a lot of lives,” she said.
“Are we seriously saying we won’t even lift a finger to save lives of people who are ‘old and vulnerable?'”
Risk of Covid ‘Armageddon’
Smeeth warned that although there was reason to be cautiously optimistic, it was still too early to completely rule out further surprises.
“Everything in history would tell you that this variant is so mutated, that there are only a few more mutations it can do, and the history of coronaviruses is that they tend to mutate into a milder form on their way out to becoming either endemic in society or just disappearing altogether,” he said. “That does seem to be where [omicron] is going. It’s very infectious, so it’s going be quite hard to replace.”
However, Smeeth added that Covid “behaves quite differently to other coronaviruses,” warning that it would be foolish to rule out another new, more severe variant.
“It could well come up with another variant that causes more severe illness and is more infectious — it really could be Armageddon, it really could be the stuff of science fiction, just like we saw last year.”
Anyanwu agreed that it was still too early to completely relax.
“We know that omicron is more transmissive but not as serious as other variants — but there is no guarantee of what the next variant is going to be,” he said.
“One of the reasons omicron spread so widely is because when it came into the U.K. population, a lot of public health measures had been reduced. We were playing more of a reactive approach to controlling it rather than being proactive.”
He added that the world was still in the midst of the pandemic and it was too soon for a return to complete normality.
“Getting rid of all measures puts us at risk if there’s any new variant that comes in,” he warned. “It might be less transmissive or more transmissive, it might be more serious in terms of outcomes like death and hospitalization.”
“It’s reasonable for individuals to stick to some measures, even when we have a lot of the government’s rules being relaxed,” Anyanwu cautioned.
“Regardless of whether government restrictions remain or are taken away, individuals can still make decisions on how they go about their daily activities.”