Covid could be defeated in UK 'by end of summer'

Vaccines credited with saving up to 200,000 lives and squashing third wave

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Covid-19 could be over in Britain by the end of the summer, a leading academic has told The National.

The combination of vaccinations and antibodies produced by the current outbreak would lead to herd immunity, the scientist said.

The vaccine programme has also saved the lives of up to 200,000 people who would almost certainly have died in the Delta variant-led stage of the epidemic, according to Prof Graeme Ackland of Edinburgh University.

But the current high rate of infections — averaging 36,000 a day — also presents a moment of “extreme danger” for those over 50 who have not been vaccinated, he warned.

The medical computer modeller, who last year was the first to suggest that the Kent variant was more deadly than the original virus, said infections could fall dramatically within six weeks.

He believes that England is likely to follow Scotland, which two weeks ago witnessed a sudden plummet in cases, potentially linked to schools starting holidays two weeks earlier and possibly the national team’s early exit from the Euro 2020 football championships.

“Cautiously, I think it might be over at the end of the summer,” he said. “It’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that we could get herd immunity in a few months because at the moment people who are refusing to be vaccinated are becoming infected at a much higher rate.

“So we might be done by the end of the summer, but I think it's fair to say that nobody really understands why.”

Certainly, many experts believe the UK has turned a corner in the fight against Covid.

Prof Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London, who sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said "the equation has fundamentally changed".

"The effect of vaccines has been huge at reducing the risk of hospitalisation and death, and I think I’m positive that by late September/October time we will be looking back at most of the pandemic," he told BBC's Radio 4 Today programme.

"We’ll still have Covid with us, we’ll still have people dying from Covid, but we’ll put the bulk of the pandemic behind us."

New Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned at the start of July that UK cases could soar to 100,000 a day once restrictions were lifted, and the country was in “unchartered territory”.

Almost all restrictions were lifted on July 19, not long after new cases reached their highest level since mid-January, with some further curbs regarding international travel due to be dropped on August 16.

Britain has been closely watched by health experts and by financial markets since then.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government judged that the risk of a big wave of deaths or hospital admissions was low due to a high vaccination rate that would limit the risk of serious illness, even if it did not fully stop new infections.

However, businesses have reported widespread absences of staff who were required to self-isolate due to having been in contact with people who have tested positive for Covid-19.

Britain has recorded 129,172 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test during the pandemic, the second-highest official total in Europe after Russia.

However, despite an initial surge to almost 60,000 cases a day, they have now fallen for six consecutive days, leading to optimism the third wave may have past its peak. On Monday, 24,950 cases were reported, after a total of 29,173 cases were reported by the government on Sunday, and that is down sharply from the 48,161 recorded on July 18.

Monday's data showed 14 new deaths, down from 28 on Sunday and the lowest daily number since July 12. There have been 445 deaths in the past seven days, 50 per cent more than the week before.

About 46.589 million people in the UK have received one vaccine dose, and 37.287 million - or just over 70 per cent of the adult population - are fully vaccinated.

While school holidays, summer heat and the football tournament ending may be contributing factors to the fall in cases, it could possibly be that the Delta variant has reached the end of its natural cycle as it has largely in India.

“The big outbreak in India lasted for about the same period of time as the one here and I have never seen any really convincing reason as to why that one burned out,” he said.

But the significant difference between the Delta outbreak in India and the one in Britain is the number of deaths. At its peak, India was averaging 400,000 infections a day and 5,000 deaths, meaning one in 80 infected people died.

In Britain’s third wave it recorded 50,000 infections at peak, but averaged 60 deaths a day, which is one in 833 infected people dying.

India had just over 1 per cent of the population fully vaccinated before the Delta epidemic in April.

Britain had 45 per cent with two doses by mid-June.

“The vaccines have really made a difference,” said Prof Ackland. “Without the vaccine then the Delta variant would have been as serious as the first two waves and almost certainly worse, as it seems to have been more infectious.”

Hospital admissions in the UK third wave have been substantially below levels in the second wave at the beginning of the year.

The earliest modelling on the UK’s potential fatalities from Covid suggested 250,000 would die if there was no vaccine. There have been 129,000 deaths to date. Lockdowns and other measures have proved important in buying time for vaccine developers.

“Covid was going to run through the population and kill a quarter of a million people and the only thing that would stop that happening in the long term would be vaccines, as lockdowns just put off the inevitable,” said Prof Ackland. “Therefore, I would say that the vaccines have saved at least 100,000 people and maybe as many as 200,000 people.”

However, the greatest danger now is that although 88 per cent of the adult UK population has received a first dose, with 70 per of over 18s fully inoculated, the virus will find a way of creating a vaccine-resistant variant among the unvaccinated.

Dr Ilan Kelman, a disaster planner at the University of London, warned that people who refused the vaccine could “potentially assist the virus in developing a new variant among the unvaccinated population”.

“The more people who do not have vaccines, the higher chance we have of a mutation which becomes vaccine resistant,” he said. “Everyone’s either going to get it or going to get vaccinated.”

If a vaccine resistant variant did appear then, while a new jab could take six weeks or more to develop from the current science, the worse-case scenario could see 500,000 deaths, Prof Ackland said.

Figures for the number of people dying who are unvaccinated have not yet been released.

For those over 50 who have refused to be vaccinated the current wave poses “an extremely dangerous moment as there's a lot of infection out there if you're not keeping yourself out of circulation”, he added.

Dr Kelman believes that current Covid variants could like Spanish Flu simply disappear, after herd immunity is achieved.

“There are two long-term remedies, the one which is certain is a fully-vaccinated population, the other one which is very uncertain, is the fact that diseases do disappear like Spanish Flu, but only after it killed 15 million.”

It also appears that Britain’s prime minister, who insisted despite rising infections on dropping all restrictions on the so-called “Freedom Day” of July 19, has seen his gamble pay off.

While many criticised Boris Johnson for fully lifting the lockdown, he stated that it was “now or never” and that people must “learn to live with this virus”.

Like the winter flu, Prof Ackland believes coronavirus will continue to “keep flaring up every year probably into forever”, as like flu it is impossible to find a total cure, despite great efforts. “We've got successful vaccines for MMR which without wiping the disease out make it essentially below herd immunity most of the time, therefore it does not take off. We’d hope to get the same results from the Covid vaccines.”

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling (Spi-M) group advising ministers, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about dropping cases but only time will tell if the third Covid wave is “turning round”.

“I would say the fact that cases have gone down for the last five days or so is … I’m cautiously optimistic about that, but I think we’re going to have to wait another couple of weeks before we see, firstly, the effect of the 19th of July relaxation and, second, whether hospital admissions will start to go down,” he said.

“I think if they do then at that point we can be much more confident that we’re starting to see, hopefully, this wave turning round.”

Updated: July 27, 2021, 1:04 PM