It could take seven or eight years for Covid to become like just another cold, with high levels of severe infections likely to continue for years to come, a leading forecaster has warned.
Barely two years into the pandemic, that means it could take another five or six years for the virus to become sufficiently mild that it became another one of the common colds people typically catch two or three times a year with relatively little inconvenience.
Daily infections, which currently stand at around 275,000 in the UK, according to the ZOE Covid study app, will “definitely” stay above 100,000 for the next three to four months, potentially dropping below that some time in July, said Professor Tim Spector, who runs the app.
He says infections may drop as low as 50,000 a day over the summer – but certainly no lower than that – “then it will kick off back up to around current rates again at the end of September as kids go back to school, the weather gets colder and we probably get a new variant – I think that’s the likely scenario.”
“It’s not going to get to ‘near zero’ levels like it has in the past. This variant is so infectious that it’s really hard to stamp it out,” Professor Spector, of King’s College London, told I.
“The pressure is going to be on the workplace, infecting others in the workplace, and leading to large numbers off sick. This will have a big knock-on effect on the economy,” he said.
He stresses that it is hard to look with much precision much beyond three or four months and says there is certainly an element of guess-work.
But he says it’s clear that it will be some time before things get back to normal – with Covid becoming so mild that it becomes like any other cold.
He is almost certain a new variant will emerge that replaces Omicron as the dominant strain.
This will set off a new wave of infections, irrespective of whether it’s more or less contagious or dangerous than Omicron, as people will have less immunity to it – as, so far at least, not many people have been infected by Omicron twice, Professor Spector said.
“What happens next year and beyond is going to depend on what the new variant looks like and how that behaves. I’ve not spoken to any virologist, immunologist or epidemiologist who thinks ‘this is it and we just have to see Omicron out and we’ll be fine’. The virus is constantly evolving and finding a way to break through our immune system and take over and there’s so many cases around that it’s got a great chance of doing that,” he said.
“It’s very hard to say what will happen in the longer term but I see it probably becoming so mild that we can’t tell it from a cold. That’s sort of what happened with the Spanish flu. It did take seven to eight years but I think we need to be looking at that timeframe and the idea that it’s all over at the two-year point is too optimistic,” he said.
“People are used to getting two three colds a year and they last a couple of days and they’re fine. That’s what I’d like to see happening,” he added.
Asked whether a new dominant variant may be worse than Omicron, in terms of infectiousness or severity he said: ‘Well it has to take over from Omicron so it’s got to be better at it in some things.’
“It will probably evolve to attack people who had Omicron and therefore infect them and take over from Omicron, which will have run out of people to infect,” he said.
The one thing that could change the outlook is if the new variant is so severe that it begins killing people in very large numbers, Professor Spector noted.
“We’re not seeing the same response as we did in earlier peaks, where as soon as it went high – and people saw others around them with the infection – they changed their behavior and rates dropped.
“Instead, we’re seeing an acceptance that Covid is nearly inevitable or nothing to worry about and that’s why we’re not seeing the big drops.”
“It all depends on the behavior of the public – if the new variant starts killing people again, then as soon as cases go up, people will change their behavior and that’s when it will drop more. So it’s not totally predictable,” Professor Spector added.