Covid-19 Variants May Not Evolve To Be Less Dangerous, Says Neil Ferguson

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People should not assume that Covid will evolve into a milder disease, a senior scientist has warned, adding that the threat posed by the Omicron coronavirus variant will not be clear until the end of December.

Professor Neil Ferguson, head of the epidemic analysis and modeling group at Imperial College London, told MPs on Wednesday that while developments lead Covid to spread more easily, the virus may not become less dangerous .

“Most of the transmission has already happened by the time people are hospitalized,” Ferguson told Commons’ science and technology committee. “The virus is concerned about replicating very quickly in the respiratory tract and exiting into the environment. If that happens to kill someone 10 days later, the virus really doesn’t care. “

His comments came as the Advisory Group on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (Nervtag) report revealed that experts had urged UK ministers last week to take “early and robust action” to limit the transmission of the virus. the Omicron variant.

Scientists noted that firm data was not yet available, but early analysis of the variant provided “sufficiently worrying signals” that they recommend “early and robust actions to prevent introduction and transmission.” .

First detected in South Africa and named Omicron by the World Health Organization (WHO), variant B.1.1.529 prompted the government to reintroduce the compulsory wearing of masks in stores and in public transport. common and significantly increase the rate of the booster vaccine. program.

Ministers also introduced stricter self-isolation policies for those in contact with positive Omicron cases and put South Africa and a range of other countries on the travel red list.

Nervtag meeting minutes, released on Wednesday, stressed that it was not clear how severe the health outcomes of the variant could be, but said a large wave of infections could potentially overwhelm the NHS. The group said preparations should be made to update vaccines and antibody treatments.

“Although data on the severity of the disease associated with B.1.1.529 are not yet available, a large wave of infections will be accompanied by a wave of severe cases and the subgroup cannot rule out this. may be enough to overwhelm the capacity of the NHS, ”he added. said minutes.

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Separately, leaked minutes from a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), to which Nervtag reports, suggest experts have called on the government to introduce pre-departure testing for travelers. returning to UK. The BBC reported that the minutes of a meeting held on Monday revealed that scientists said such tests – which Labor had requested – could be useful.

Ferguson told MPs that while some viruses have become less dangerous over time, this has not always been the case. Two of the most prominent variants of Covid-19, the Alpha and Delta variants, had each caused more serious illness than their predecessors, he said.

He said: “It’s too early to tell if Omicron will be more or less severe than the previous variants, but what we’ve seen so far is that Alpha has been more severe than the previous strain, a little in terms of serious results outweighed by the fact that we have treatments, and Delta was even more severe.

“The trend we’ve seen so far is towards greater severity, not less severity, fortunately thwarted by better treatments… which means people have a much better chance of surviving severe Covid today at the start of the pandemic. “

Viruses mutate all the time when they replicate in infected bodies. Most mutations have a negative or neutral impact on the virus, but some can improve its ability to spread. This can happen if a variant binds better to human cells, or multiplies more quickly inside cells, or makes people infectious for longer.

In a highly immune population like the UK, a variant may gain the upper hand if its mutations make it harder for the immune system to attack.

Mutations in the Omicron variant are expected to make it both more transmissible and more difficult for antibodies to recognize. The concerns have sparked an urgent global effort to understand how well vaccines and immunity after infection protect against the variant. The first results are expected in a week or two, but Ferguson said it would take more time to better understand the threat posed by Omicron.

When the Alpha and Delta variants emerged, it took epidemiologists several weeks to gather enough data to determine how more transmissible they were and the extent of any immune breakouts.

Ferguson said it would likely take “three to four weeks” to get an indication of the vaccine’s transmission and effectiveness in the real world. “We have to be patient. It will probably be towards the end of this month when we have a clearer picture. “

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