A sign reminding riders to wear a face mask to prevent the spread of Covid-19 appears on a bus on First Street outside the U.S. Capitol on Monday, January 10, 2022.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
Infectious disease experts have warned that it’s too soon for the public to stop taking steps to avoid Covid-19 infection, despite health officials claiming it’s inevitable most people will catch the seemingly milder omicron variant.
Many countries now have few or no Covid-related restrictions remaining, as surging case numbers are weighed against vaccination rates. The leaders of some European countries have called for the coronavirus crisis to begin its shift from pandemic to endemic, and be treated like the seasonal flu.
In the U.K., where new cases are beginning to ease from record-high levels after a December surge, the government is reportedly drawing up plans to completely scrap its emergency Covid laws, including self-isolation requirements, according to The Telegraph.
Official data published on Monday showed that around 98% of the U.K. population now has antibody protection against the virus, either through vaccination or infection. Just over 80% of the country’s population has received two doses of a Covid vaccine.
There is a consensus among many that the highly transmissible omicron variant is so infectious, everybody will eventually contract Covid. White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted the strain will “find just about everybody,” CNN reported last week.
However, many scientists are still urging the public to do what they can to avoid infection.
Professor Liam Smeeth, a physician and director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CNBC that while omicron appears inherently milder, scientific knowledge is still “not as complete as we’d like” on how the heavily mutated variant will impact vulnerable individuals.
“If the vulnerable do become quite unwell with omicron — and some of them will — if that all happens at once, if we just let it rip through society, then any health system in the world would get overwhelmed,” he said in a phone call.
“And that is a very, very grim thought — so grim as to be quite terrifying. It’s clear that most people don’t get very unwell with omicron, but we don’t have clear evidence that that’s true of everyone.”
Smeeth added that omicron’s increased transmissibility meant it still posed big risks, despite appearing to cause milder symptoms.
“Because it’s so infectious, it literally could be millions of very unwell people all at the same time, which no health system could cope with,” he explained.
“You’ve also got the fact that people are going to be off sick — it doesn’t cause serious illness, but it does cause enough that people need to stay at home [to recover]. And if that happens across the whole of society all at once, even in the space of a few weeks, that means the police are going to struggle, supermarkets aren’t going to open, the health system’s not going to function — there would be pretty big social disruption going on.”
“So even if it’s reasonably mild, there are reasons to want it to happen more gradually,” he said.