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Britain’s latest lockdown has dramatically reduced cases of coronavirus, and the number of people being admitted to hospital and dying from the disease. What the country faces now is essentially a race between vaccination and infection: can we protect people faster than the virus spreads as restrictions are eased?
This was always going to be a balancing act. The UK vaccination strategy of prioritising the most vulnerable people and moving down the age groups is intended to save lives first and slow transmission second. This means that as the country unlocks, infections are likely to rise, primarily in younger people who have more social contacts and have not yet been vaccinated. Hospitalisations and deaths are expected to rise too, though not as sharply: even though vaccine coverage has been high in vulnerable groups and older people, not everyone has the vaccine and it will not protect all those who do.
Dr Anne Cori of Imperial College London, who is modelling the coronavirus outbreak, said what happens in the coming weeks is uncertain, but with the dominant Kent variant so transmissible, we can inspect the epidemic to grow as Britain comes out of lockdown. “We would expect more cases, but also more hospitalisations and deaths as we unlock,” she said. All the modelling has highlighted the importance of reaching high vaccine coverage before relaxing restrictions, she said, “to keep this ‘third wave’ to a minimal level.” If a slow down in vaccine rollout is not countered by slower relaxation, we can expect more hospitalisations and deaths. Imperial modelling suggests the UK can expect a further 30,000 coronavirus deaths by next June.
The situation is delicate enough without throwing new variants into the equation. The new variants that have scientists most concerned are the ones that show some resistance to vaccines, such as those first found in South Africa and Brazil and which are now seen in clusters in the UK. As more people are vaccinated, resistant variants may well gain the upper hand over the more susceptible Kent variant and spread more easily in Britain. Containing these vaccine-resistant strains, however they arrive, is now of paramount importance. Losing control of them would risk undermining all the protection the vaccine programme have achieved so far.
According to Cori, controlling importations of resistant variants will be crucial to prevent “a dramatic surge in infections”. New vaccines or boosters against the new variants are expected to be available as soon as the autumn. Until then, scientists stress the need to keep new variants out, and keep cases down, as fewer infections mean fewer opportunities for the virus to mutate and become more resistant to vaccines.
Health officials are looking carefully at Israel, the first country to have fully vaccinated more than half its population, for real-world impacts of inoculation campaigns. Recent data from the small country of 9 million people showed the Pfizer/BioNTech had been extremely effective at driving down deaths, hospitalisations, and infections.
While the two countries’ vaccination drives are hard to compare – Israel administers shots three weeks apart and started offering jabs to young people much sooner than the UK – there are promising indications. Furthermore, Israel’s dominant strain has been the UK variant, B117.
Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute, said on Monday that the R rate (the growth rate of infections), now around 0.6, was still declining in Israel despite the country having exited a lockdown more than a month ago. Since mid-January, there were 85% fewer daily deaths, 72% fewer daily critically ill patients and 86% fewer daily cases, he added.
Fearing more lethal or vaccine-resistant variants of the coronavirus, Israel’s government has kept tight restrictions on incoming international travellers. However, so far, there have not been indications that new dangerous variants have appeared within Israel’s unvaccinated population.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Can the UK avoid a third wave of Covid? | World news