The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have released their latest data from their COVID-19 infection survey.
Professor Lawrence Young, Virologist and Professor of Molecular Oncology, University of Warwick, said:
“This significant rise in infections is really worrying and demonstrates that there’s no room for complacency as far as covid is concerned. It’s a wakeup call about our vulnerability to new variants – this wave of infection is driven by new omicron subvariants. BA.4 and BA.5, that are more infectious and able to evade immune protection afforded by vaccination and previous infection. The good news is that where other countries have experienced significant waves of B.4 and BA.5, namely Portugal and South Africa, these waves have now peaked without a major increase in severe disease, principally due to the levels of vaccination in these populations. The hope is that this will be similar here and that we have reached the peak of infections. But this wave does provide a warning for what we could experience over the autumn and winter. We need to prepare now for the autumn and winter months when colder weather will drive people indoors increasing the risk of infection not only with new covid variants but also with other respiratory virus infections. Waning immunity means that booster shots will be necessary in the autumn to protect the elderly, clinically vulnerable and frontline healthcare workers.”
Dr Stephen Griffin, Associate Professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds, said:
“This large increase in infections was sadly predictable given the past weeks showing the growth advantage of BA4/5 over BA2 and the R value remaining above 1 across the country. In the absence of any population scale mitigations, we are left relying upon vaccination to prevent infection and severe disease. Whilst the latter is largely successfully achieved, there remains a considerable minority for whom this does not apply, plus we should remember that any severity of infection can lead to long COVID. This is of particular concern given the massive prevalence and antibody evasiveness of Omicron.
“It is obviously right that vaccines reduce severe disease and waves such as this do not cause the same spikes in hospitalisations as we saw for e.g. the alpha variants. However, the constant bombardment of waves we are seeing does cause clinical impact that is not to be underestimated – the lack of a sharp peak for hospitalisations and deaths doesn’t change the overall area under the curve over time. We should also expect for these measures to lag behind the rapid increase in cases. BA1 and BA2 both caused certificated peaks of COVID deaths at well over 1000/week.
“Repeated waves of omicron, or whatever may follow, will continue to cause unacceptable harm, and we are failing to control prevalence even between waves compared to last year. This requires a comprehensive plan for continued vaccination, as well as improving the poor uptake in younger age groups. School children will likely once again become a large source of transmission as this wave develops due to the lack of prior vaccination and absence of sensible mitigations in schools. Whilst far less common than in adults, we can expect based upon previous waves that the very high prevalence of Omicron will sadly cause a considerable number of juvenile hospitalisations and long COVID, the impact of which upon a young life is soul destroying.”
Dr Julian Tang, Honorary Associate Professor/Clinical Virologist, Respiratory Sciences, University of Leicester, said:
“Omicron seems to be the most well adapted variant thus far – and as I said months ago, with a more transmissible and less severe variant, this is the likely direction that this virus will take. It is not luck it is just evolution. 1,2,3,4
“A more transmissible and less severe variant will outcompete its rivals and enhance the spread of its genes, by allowing relatively well, but infected people to mix in society – especially with all pandemic restrictions lifted.
“As omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants continue to evolve in this direction, we may see more cases with more hospitalisations during the summer – especially in the unvaccinated and in those whose vaccine and natural immunity is waning. The unknown risk is with returning travellers coming back from their summer holidays – whether any other new variants with different characteristics may be imported – but this risk is dwindling as omicron becomes more widespread and global.
“This does have ongoing implications with infection control interventions in the community going into the Autumn/Winter – and good control of COVID-19 will also help to control other seasonal respiratory viruses, as we have seen previously. This is a timely warning as we have seen a surge in seasonal influenza cases already in Australia, this trend might be repeated in the UK5.
“A return to masking, improved ventilation and some degree of social distancing may be useful to control the COVID-19 and seasonal influenza case numbers going into these colder months – but the impact of the cost of living crisis may not make some of these measures acceptable to business already struggling to make ends meet.
“The cost of living crisis may, inadvertently, help to reduce the spread of the virus if people are less able to spend time in indoor crowded leisure spaces, like shopping malls, cinemas, concert theatres, etc., which will help to reduce absenteeism and loss of income – especially in those working on zero hours contracts and in the gig economy where if you are not working, you are not being paid.
“However, the inability to heat homes together with an increased circulation of these viruses will also exacerbate hospitalisation rates. We know that cold winter months put more strain on patients with chronic illness, like diabetes, hypertension, neurological, renal, heart and lung disease, etc. – and the inability to heat our homes will exacerbate these conditions. Add to this, the increased circulation of COVID-19 and the other seasonal respiratory viruses – including flu – and these chronic conditions will be further exacerbated and bring people into hospital.
“People are now very reluctant to reduce their social mixing and movement activities, and the current COVID-19 vaccines are now very far behind the current omicron variant in terms of antigenic matching, so will have little impact on controlling transmission – though they still offer some protection against severe disease.
“So as we progress into the colder months, only natural immunity may provide some degree of protection against viral transmission/infection/reinfection – so we still need to look out for the unvaccinated and vulnerable – where any existing natural or vaccine immunity will either fail to protect or wane more quickly.”
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey, UK: 1 July 2022 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/bulletins/coronaviruscovid19infectionsurveypilot/1july2022
All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:
Dr Stephen Griffin: Member of Independent SAGE
For all other experts, no reply to our request for DOIs was received.