Covid will ‘taunt us’ for years, says UK health security chief

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The future path of the pandemic is less predictable than when Covid-19 first hit because of the number of new variants, and the virus will continue to “taunt us” for years to come, the head of the UK health security agency has said.

Jenny Harries indicated that cases of both flu and Covid may have peaked for now while adding that the country could face further waves of both diseases this year.

The NHS has come under record pressure as it copes with the worst flu season for several years combined with fresh coronavirus outbreaks which have caused hospitalisation rates to rise sharply. However, both the number of confirmed flu outbreaks and flu-related admissions fell in the first week of the year, while Covid infections also declined, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics. About one in 25 people in England currently has Covid.

Health leaders say the NHS remains under extreme pressure and performance on indicators such as ambulance response times and A&E waiting times is the worst on record.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Harries suggested both flu and Covid might be showing signs of peaking. She pointed to Australia where a sharp early flu wave had occurred but, by the time it had ended, was seen as “a fairly normal flu wave shifted forward”.

“Hopefully, we might have that and that could be the end of flu for this year,” she added.

However, Harries said it was important “to stay alert” to the fact that the UK could have “double flu and double Covid seasons” and that these might overlap. “We may well, or almost certainly will, have more Covid waves going forward. That doesn’t mean people will end up in hospital but we’ll see it epidemiologically. So I think that the real message is this is highly unpredictable.” 

“At this point in the pandemic it’s far less predictable than it was right at the start in some ways, because we’ve got a flow of new variants coming through that we have to keep monitoring,” she added.

While flu had settled into a seasonal pattern, she said, coronavirus probably had not. However, she suggested that the pressure on the NHS would not continue to intensify.

“As long as people stay vaccinated, as long as we keep checking that the vaccines are working, and as long as we’ve got our armoury of treatments for those who perhaps still do become infected, the impact on the NHS should not get greater,” she argued.

While the agency was monitoring any changes in the virus’s “biological structure”, the vaccines were “working well”, she said. However, Covid would not “disappear off the planet”.

“I think it’s probably here to stay to taunt us,” she noted, adding that the UK would need to have some kind of vaccination programme in place for “many years to come”.

Vaccines based on mRNA technology, such as those produced by BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, have formed the bedrock of the UK’s Covid control strategy since booster shots were introduced in 2021.

Harries said that, while mRNA had done a “brilliant job”, the country needed to understand in the longer term “what’s going to give the best longevity in terms of immune response”. There was “still lots to learn”, she added.

Harries said the agency was closely involved in international efforts to improve surveillance in order to spot new pathogens coming down the track. It was imparting new skills to nine countries and territories “so that they too can learn to assess and be confident in genomic sequencing . . . so that we’re boosting the preparation not just of the UK but the world as well”. 

However, global public health experts have been frustrated at the difficulty in receiving accurate information on the virus from China, which at the weekend reported almost 60,000 deaths since strict restrictions were lifted last month.

Harries said: “I think it would be more reassuring if we had more rapid data flows through and more frequent uploading of recent genomic sequencing.”

China’s scientists were accomplished at uploading sequences, she added, but “what we would like is if they would share all of the sequences”.

Harries said she had spoken to scientists from the China Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and hoped over the coming weeks and months to gain some assurance about sequencing through professional dialogue, “which is always a good place to start”.

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