Ought to we deal with Covid just like the flu? Europe is beginning to suppose so

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People walk on Regent Street in London.

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LONDON — There are growing calls in Europe for Covid-19 to be treated as an endemic disease like the flu, despite strong warnings from global health officials that the pandemic is far from over.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is the latest European leader to stick his head over the parapet by suggesting it’s time to reassess Covid. He called on the EU to discuss the possibility of treating the virus as an endemic disease.

“The situation is not what we faced a year ago,” Sanchez said in a radio interview with Spain’s Cadena SER on Monday, as Spanish schoolchildren returned to their classrooms after the holidays.

“I think we need to assess the evolution of Covid into an endemic disease from the pandemic we’ve faced so far,” he added. Sanchez said it was time to open the debate on a gradual reassessment of the pandemic “at a technical level and at a health professional level, but also at a European level”.

However, Sanchez’s comments represent a kind of departure from other leaders on the continent, most of whom have focused on the immediate challenge of managing the alarming number of Covid cases caused by the Omicron variant, which is high is contagious but generally causing less severe illness appears to resemble the common cold more than the flu symptoms seen with earlier variants.

France, for example, has reported more than 300,000 new cases every day for the past few days and Germany reported 80,430 new infections on Wednesday, the highest number in a single day since the pandemic began, according to Reuters.

Sanchez’s comments echo those made by politicians in the UK last year, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the British public they had to ‘learn to live with the virus’.

Against this backdrop, the UK government has had to keep its cool in recent weeks by not introducing new restrictions on the public, despite what Johnson described as a “tidal wave” of cases caused by Omicron.

Britain’s Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC on Sunday the country was on its way “from pandemic to endemic” as the government said it could extend the self-isolation period for vaccinated people who test positive for Covid to seven days cut to five (like the latest guidance in the US) to ease employee absences from the workplace and the massive economic disruption caused by Covid.

As omicron cases appear to be falling in the UK (although the number of infections remains at high levels), the UK strategy could have helped get past an omicron peak sooner rather than later, with a public health expert saying , Britain will be one of the first countries in the world to emerge from the pandemic.

Speaking at a seminar on Monday, Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said that “the UK is the closest thing to any country being out of the pandemic, if not already out of the pandemic and the disease.” than has endemic.”

The WHO warns of an “endemic”.

Many epidemiologists and virologists have declared that Covid — which first emerged in China in late 2019 before spreading across the world and causing more than 313 million cases and over 5 million deaths so far — will stay here and eventually become an endemic disease .

This means that in the future there will be sustained but low to moderate levels of Covid in every population, however the virus should not cause excessive rates of infection or spread from country to country (which would make it a pandemic again).

However, the World Health Organization warns that it is too early to consider Covid an endemic disease. It warned on Tuesday that the global outbreak is nowhere near an endemic stage, as it estimates more than half of people in Europe and central Asia could become infected with Covid in the next six to eight weeks if Omicron spreads spreads.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Dr. Catherine Smallwood, a senior emergency officer at WHO Europe, said it was too early to assume the world was in an endemic phase of Covid.

“In terms of endemicity, we’re a long way from that, and I know there’s a lot of discussion about that right now,” Smallwood said.

“Endemic assumes there is stable circulation of the virus at predictable levels and potentially known and predictable waves of epidemic transmission,” she said.

“But what we’re seeing right now in 2022 is nowhere near, we still have a lot of uncertainty, we still have a virus that’s evolving pretty quickly and bringing new challenges, so certainly we’re still not at the point where we are able to call it endemic. It could become endemic in due course, but pinning that by 2022 is a bit difficult at this point.”

Smallwood noted that widespread immunization coverage would be key to transitioning to such a scenario, but for now, the conditions for endemics are not met.

Marco Cavaleri, head of strategy for biological health threats and vaccines at the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s medicines regulator, said on Tuesday that “no one knows exactly when we’ll be at the end of the tunnel” if the pandemic becomes endemic, but added, that progress is being made.

“What’s important is that we are moving towards the virus becoming more endemic, but I can’t say we’ve reached that status yet, so the virus is still behaving like a pandemic,” he said in a news conference.

“Nevertheless, with the increase in immunity in the population and with omicron, alongside vaccination, we will build a lot of natural immunity, we will quickly move towards a scenario closer to endemic.”

Booster Puzzles

The Covid vaccination remains patchy worldwide. As rich countries roll out booster shots and even discuss the possibility of a fourth Covid shot, poorer countries are still rolling out their starting doses, and many people are left unprotected by vaccines that have been shown to reduce the risk of serious infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

According to Our World in Data, 59.2% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine, but only 8.9% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

However, booster shots are not without problems, as scientists at the WHO and elsewhere warn that continuous booster shots is not a viable strategy.

EMA’s Cavaleri said on Tuesday that “repeated vaccinations at short intervals will not represent a sustainable long-term strategy”.

“If we follow a strategy where we’re doing booster shots every four months, we may end up having immune response problems…so we should be careful not to overload the immune system with repeated immunizations,” he said.

“And secondly, of course, there is the danger of population fatigue with the continuous administration of booster vaccinations.” Ideally, according to Cavaleri, “such booster vaccinations should be synchronized with the arrival of the cold season if one wants to approach an endemic scenario” and timed be tailored to be given with influenza vaccines.

“We need to think about how to move from the current pandemic environment to a more endemic environment,” he said.