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Like the third winter coronavirus pandemic looming in the northern hemisphere, scientists are warning weary governments and the public to brace for new waves of COVID-19.
In the United States alone, there could be up to a million infections a day this winter, according to Chris Murray, head of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent modeling group at the University of Washington that is tracking the pandemic. , Reuters said. This would be about double the current daily figure.
In the United Kingdom and Europe, scientists predict a series of COVID waves as people spend more time indoors during the colder months, this time with little to no masks or social distancing restrictions.
However, while cases could rise again in the coming months, deaths and hospitalizations are unlikely to rise at the same rate, experts say, driven by vaccination and booster programs, previous exposure, easier options and the availability of highly effective drugs. 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 projections raise new questions about when countries will emerge from the COVID emergency phase into endemic disease, with small outbreaks in communities with high vaccination rates, possibly on a seasonal basis.
Many experts predicted that the transition would begin in early 2022, but the emergence of a highly mutated variant of the Omicron coronavirus has shattered those expectations.
“We need to put aside the thought of whether the pandemic is over?” said Adam Kucharsky, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He and others see COVID turning into an endemic threat that continues to cause a heavy burden of disease.
“Someone once told me that the definition of endemic is that life gets a little worse,” he added.
The potential wild card remains whether or not a new variant emerges to outperform the currently dominant Omicron sub-variants.
If this variant also causes more severe disease and better able to evade previous immunity, which would be the “worst case scenario” according to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) Europe report.
“All scenarios (with new options) point to the possibility of a big wave in the future at levels that are as bad or worse than the waves of the 2020/2021 epidemic,” says the report, based on the Imperial College London model.
Many disease experts interviewed by Reuters said making predictions about COVID has become much more difficult as many people rely on rapid home tests that go unreported to government health officials, obscuring the infection rate.
BA.5, a sub-variant of Omicron that is currently causing a peak in infections highly contagious in many regions, meaning that many patients hospitalized for other illnesses may test positive for it and be considered severe cases, even if COVID-19 is not their source of stress.
The scientists said other unknowns complicating their predictions include whether the combination of vaccination and COVID infection — called hybrid immunity — provides more protection for people, as well as how effective booster campaigns might 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 monitoring developments in Australia, where a renewed flu season combined with COVID is causing hospitals to be overwhelmed. They say it’s possible Western nations could see a similar picture after a few quiet flu seasons.
“If it happens there, it can happen here too. Let’s get ready for the proper flu season,” said John McCauley, director of the World Flu Center at the Francis Crick Institute in London.
The WHO said that every country still needs to approach the new waves with all the tools in the pandemic’s arsenal, from vaccination to interventions like testing and social distancing or wearing masks.
The Israeli government recently stopped routine testing of travelers for COVID at its international airport, but is ready to resume the practice “within a few days” if it encounters a major surge, said Sharon Alroy-Preis, the country’s head of public health.
“When there is a wave of infections, we need to wear masks, we need to check ourselves,” she said. “That’s life with COVID.”