4 Experts Unpick Why Our Future With Covid Is Still So 'Unpredictable'

More than two years after the first lockdown, specialists expect the virus will continue to overshadow everyday life for some time yet.
The pandemic is likely to be "unpredictable" for several more years
martin-dm via Getty Images
The pandemic is likely to be "unpredictable" for several more years

Covid infection rates are climbing once again across the UK but – with no social distancing restrictions nor self-isolation obligations in place – our future living alongside the disease looks more unclear than ever.

With one in 15 people in the UK currently struggling with symptomatic Covid according to the Zoe Covid Study and as the latest Omicron sub-variant – BA.2 – becomes dominant worldwide, it’s clear the pandemic is not over.

The number of hospital patients in England with Covid is rising once again
PA GraphicsPress Association Images
The number of hospital patients in England with Covid is rising once again

Here’s what the experts are saying about what our future with Covid will realistically look like:

Is a more dangerous variant ahead?

There has been some speculation that Covid will evolve to become increasingly mild, with each new variant triggering less intense symptoms.

But Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, claimed that the virus is likely to continue being a problem for the next two to three years – and that Covid’s mutations in that time will be unpredictable.

As he pointed out, the new(ish) sub-variant of Omicron, BA.2, is already 80% more transmissible than the original Omicron strain, enabling it to become the most dominant Covid form around the world.

Speaking to the joint Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Public Health in March, Whitty explained: “We could well end up with a new variant that produces worse problems than we’ve got with Omicron – and Omicron problems are not by any means trivial, but Omicron is largely de-risked by vaccination in those people who are vaccinated.”

It will be ‘unpredictable’ for up to ‘two years’

Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UKHSA (UK Health Security Sgency), told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “The pandemic takes its own course and it will remain unpredictable to a large extent for the next say 18 months to two years, I think is general consensus, and we will have to be continuously alert to monitor those rates and to respond appropriately to any new variants.”

However, Harries added: “As with other respiratory viruses such as flu, it’s not the same disease, but it’s a similar sort of comparison, at some point we have to come to terms with that.”

She also said that the key point is making sure people come forward for booster vaccinations to keep up high levels of immunity across the country.

There may be no Covid ‘end point’

Professor Whitty echoed a similar message to Harries when he emphasised that Covid will gradually become “less dominant” as time goes on but we should expect it to be a problem “for the rest of our lives”.

He claimed: “I’m expecting it to be probably in the UK seasonally, but interspersed, at least for the next two or three years by new variants while it’s still evolving essentially to adapt to human, which may occur in between seasonal peaks.

“I think we should just accept that is what we’re going to deal with and just roll with it, rather than expect some end point.”

He added that “we’re still in the foothills of understanding” what long Covid is. Whitty pointed out that even if there were no more infection waves from this point onwards, “we will still be living with the effects of long Covid for some time.”

So...will it ever become endemic?

Writing for the Guardian, Professor Christina Pagel, member of independent SAGE and director of UCL’s Clinical Operational Research Unit, suggested that Covid is still far from being “endemic”, judging by the unpredictable Omicron waves which have swept across the world in recent months.

Endemic refers to a disease which is usually limited to an area or a community, but is still consistently present and breaks out regularly, like flu.

It is widely used to describe a disease which is not out of control, although that is not always an accurate explanation.

Reaching endemicity has also been perceived as a stepping stone towards the so-called “end” of Covid.

However, Pagel warned: “People have declared Covid endemic after every previous wave and there is nothing special about this latest wave – they are still wrong.”

Pagel explained: “There is a significant global burden of ill health and death, for instance, from endemic diseases such as TB and Malaria.”

She claimed that trying to ignore such an endemic disease which is still so unpredictable “feels a bit like turning your back on a hungry tiger in the undergrowth”. She also said that even if Covid were to become endemic anytime soon, this does not mean it is “necessarily mean mild”.

The specialist pointed out that new strains seen throughout the pandemic have not become dominant because they trigger milder symptoms in those they infect.

She says it is high transmission rates that drive the evolution of viruses, and that severity is therefore “a byproduct” of the virus’ mutations which improve its ability to pass from one person to another.

Covid booster vaccines will still be needed for a long time yet, according to experts
gilaxia via Getty Images
Covid booster vaccines will still be needed for a long time yet, according to experts

Vaccines – and tests – will be with us for a long time yet

Pagel also pointed out why we are “still not finished with the vaccination programme” touching on the UK’s high vaccination rate.

She predicted that Covid will continue to evolve by evading our immune system.

Vaccine efficacy fades over time too, so the onus is on the public to stay up to date with their vaccinations.

She warned: “We are currently pushing existing vaccines to their limits with high infection levels, but we should instead be supporting them by reducing transmission.”

Whitty also pointed out that the idea Covid had “moved to a stable state” among places with high vaccination rates around the world is “incorrect”, as seen by the recent flare-ups in Hong Kong.

Referring more to the immediate future, King’s College London Dr Tim Spector of the Zoe Covid Study App said: “As the Government cuts off free testing and all restrictions are lifted it’s difficult to predict where things will go from here.”

“Whilst LFTs are no longer free, we’re pleased to see early data from 100,000 Zoe Covid Study contributors that suggest LFT accuracy remains high.

“The data shows LFTs are almost 80% effective in detecting positive cases and as high as 97% accurate in identifying negative cases.

“This should reassure everyone that LFTs remain a valuable tool for monitoring Covid and everyone should have a small supply to test themselves when they have cold-like symptoms.”

However, it’s always worth checking the expiry date of lateral flow tests too as the solution can go out of date.