Britain could become the first country to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic due to its very high vaccination and infection rates, a leading scientist has said.
Prof David Heymann, who helped to defeat a 1970s Ebola outbreak in Africa, said the UK has effectively been coping with the virus since the summer of last year, with vaccines and widely available self-testing kits.
But Prof Heymann did warn that in an effort to “self-perpetuate”, the virus was infecting more young children and he could not rule out other more virulent variants, although future strains were likely to reflect the milder Omicron mutation.
The US-born London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine scientist said that of all the Northern Hemisphere countries, Britain was the most advanced in living with Covid-19.
“The UK is the closest to any country in being out of the pandemic if it isn’t already out of the pandemic and having the disease as endemic,” he said.
Britain has the world’s fourth highest infection rate with more than 14 million people contracting Covid-19, and has the second-highest booster rate behind Chile, with 60 per cent of adults receiving a third shot.
“That population immunity seems to be keeping the virus and its variants at bay, not causing serious illness or death,” he told Chatham House think tank's online seminar.
The most recent Office for National Statistics report on population immunity also estimated that 95 per cent of the population in England has antibodies.
“It’s now functioning more like an endemic coronavirus than one that is a pandemic,” Prof Heymann said.
The leading infectious disease expert stated that many people who were getting seriously ill had not had previous infection and had not gained immunity from a vaccine.
“If you look in the intensive care units, you’ll see that unfortunately the majority of those people are not vaccinated,” he said.
A key reason why Britain was able to live with Covid came from having massive numbers of self-testing kits available, giving the public the ability to do their own health assessments.
“This is not happening in many, many other countries, but it is certainly happening in the UK and that's one of the strategies that, in my view has been quite successful in helping people do their own risk assessment,” Prof Heymann said.
There has been speculation — denied by Downing Street — that the government might end free testing that has so far cost £6 billion ($8.14bn).
There was also growing evidence that the virus is increasingly infecting children because of the adult population immunity in Britain.
“It's causing illness in children, possibly more than it did in the past,” he said. “Children are the only population now where the virus can find a welcome home because they haven't had infection previously … because there's nowhere else that it can transmit in an effort to perpetuate itself.”
Prof Heymann, 76, who has worked for the World Health Organisation, said that “big issue today” was understanding “long Covid”, with people fatigued for months or suffering cardiac arrhythmias. He said that vaccines could potentially protect people against long Covid.
The expert said there would be resurgences of Covid in the future and more variants will arise, though it was not clear of what severity.
“We’re fortunate in that we have vaccines which can be modified very rapidly, and put into production very rapidly to deal with an escapee,” he said.