As the third winter of the coronavirus pandemic looms in the Northern Hemisphere, scientists are warning weary governments and populations to prepare for more waves of COVID-19.
In the United States alone, there could be as many as a million infections a day this winter, Chris Murray, head of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent modeling group at the University of Washington that has been tracking the pandemic. , he told Reuters. That would be about double the current daily count.
Across the UK and Europe, scientists are predicting a series of waves of COVID, as people spend more time indoors during the colder months, this time with almost no masks or social distancing restrictions.
However, while cases may rise again in the coming months, deaths and hospitalizations are unlikely to rise with the same intensity, experts said, helped by booster and vaccination campaigns, previous infections, milder variants and the availability of highly effective treatments for COVID.
“The people who are most at risk are those who have never seen the virus, and there is hardly anyone left,” Murray said.
These forecasts raise new questions about when countries will move from the COVID emergency phase to an endemic disease state, where communities with high vaccination rates will see smaller, possibly seasonal, outbreaks.
Many experts had predicted that the transition would begin in early 2022, but the arrival of the highly mutated Omicron coronavirus variant disrupted those expectations.
“We have to put aside the idea of ’is the pandemic over?'” said Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He and others see COVID becoming an endemic threat that still causes a high burden of disease.
“Someone once told me that the definition of endemism is that life gets a little bit worse,” he added.
The potential wildcard remains whether a new variant will emerge that tops the currently dominant Omicron sub-variants.
If that variant also causes more severe disease and is better able to evade previous immunity, that would be a “worst-case scenario,” according to a recent report from Europe by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“All scenarios (with new variants) indicate the potential for a future big wave at a level as bad as or worse than the 2020/2021 epidemic waves,” said the report, based on a model from Imperial College London.
Many of the disease experts interviewed by Reuters said forecasting for COVID has become much more difficult as many people rely on rapid home tests that go unreported to government health officials, obscuring rates. of infection.
BA.5, the Omicron subvariant that is currently causing infections to peak in many regions, is extremely transmissible, meaning that many patients hospitalized for other illnesses may test positive and be counted among the severe cases, even if COVID -19 is not the source of his angst.
The scientists said other unknowns complicating their forecasts include whether a combination of vaccination and COVID infection, so-called hybrid immunity, is giving people greater protection, as well as how effective booster campaigns may be.
“Anyone who says they can predict the future of this pandemic is either overconfident or lying,” said David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Experts are also closely watching developments in Australia, where a resurgent flu season combined with COVID is overwhelming hospitals. They say it’s possible Western nations could see a similar pattern after several quiet flu seasons.
“If it happens there, it can happen here. Let’s prepare for a proper flu season,” said John McCauley, director of the World Influenza Center at the Francis Crick Institute in London.
The WHO has said that every country still needs to tackle new waves with all the tools in the pandemic arsenal, from vaccines to interventions such as testing and social distancing or masking.
Israel’s government recently halted routine COVID testing of travelers at its international airport, but is ready to resume the practice “within days” if it faces a major surge, said Sharon Alroy-Preis, director of the service. of public health in the country.
“When there is a wave of infections, we need to put on masks, we need to get tested,” he said. “That’s living with COVID.”
Reporting by Jennifer Rigby and Julie Steenhuysen; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Edited by Michele Gershberg and Bill Berkrot