A report prepared by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Modelling (Spi-M) panel revealed that it was likely to take “at least a further five years for Covid-19 to settle to a predictable endemic state” – where the virus lingers in the background but does not threaten to cause widespread infection and rapidly overwhelm the NHS.
The report – produced before the omicron variant was identified, and released on Friday – added that it was “highly likely that continuation of active management of SARS-CoV-2 will be required for the long term. How much vaccination and boosters, and what other interventions (testing, ventilation, isolation of cases, etc) are required over the next five to ten years, will be driven by factors that are, as yet, unknown.”
On the question of how long it would take before the coronavirus settled into a more predictable endemic state, the Spi-M report said that government policy and the rate at which immunity fell would each play a large part in determining the timescale.
“Assuming no intervention other than vaccinations, if immunity to SARS-CoV-2 wanes quickly, endemicity will be reached faster, but this will also lead to higher prevalence levels once reached and thus a greater burden on health and care services,” the report said.
It added: “Repeated vaccination may be required to maintain sufficient vaccine-derived immunity for future Covid-19 control. It is a realistic possibility that, over the next five years, there will be epidemics of sufficient size to overwhelm health and care services.”
The warning came as 75 cases of the new omicron variant were identified in England, with reports of community spread now emerging, the UK Health and Security Agency said.
The government also released minutes of an emergency meeting of respiratory disease specialists who had discussed the omicron variant on 25 November. Advisers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) cautioned that a “very stringent response” from Downing Street may be needed, while scientists in the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) said a spike in cases could overwhelm the NHS.
Nervtag, which is a sub-group of Sage, also said in the meeting that it could not rule out that an infection wave caused by omicron would potentially be of a magnitude similar to, or even larger than, previous waves.
In this event, the surge in infections would be “accompanied by a wave of severe cases, and the subgroup cannot rule out that this may be sufficient to overwhelm NHS capacity”, Nervtag added.
The scientists similarly called for “early and robust actions” to limit the spread of the variant in the UK. They did not specify measures, but reiterated the need for Britain’s vaccine programme to be accelerated. The PM said on Tuesday that the government was aiming to have offered all adults a booster by the end of January.
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