A number of European countries are extending or reintroducing lockdown measures as a third wave of the pandemic grips the continent. The new spike in infections is largely being driven by mutated strains of the coronavirus, such as the B117 mutation first detected in Kent and now sweeping across Germany. France, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands and Germany have all seen a dramatic rise in infection rates, which given how things played out during the pandemic, has led many to believe the UK will be the next to succumb to a third wave.
Express.co.uk spoke to Martin Michaelis, a professor of molecular medicine from the School of Bioscience at the University of Kent, who said the situation in the UK is “slightly different”.
Professor Michaelis explained: “Although the COVID-19 numbers are much lower than they used to be, they are still high with more than 5,000 cases per day.
“Fortunately, the number of deaths and hospital admissions has gone down, which is at least in part due to the fact that more than 28million residents have received their first vaccine.
“With increasing levels of immunity in a population, both due to vaccinations and previous infections, countries should become less vulnerable to virus introductions from elsewhere.”
Although this all sounds good on paper, Mr Michaelis said the concern remains that it’s not clear “how long the vaccine will last and when and how often booster vaccinations may be required”.
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While the UK is definitely ahead of its European counterparts when it comes to vaccinations, there’s still a huge risk of incoming variants disrupting the success so far.
Mr Michaelis explained: “Of even greater concern are new variants that may be able to infect vaccinated individuals or those who had previously been infected.
“Such so-called ‘escape’ variants have recently been described with increasing frequency in places like Brazil, South Africa and the US.”
The emergence of new variants comes as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about viruses.
The longer a virus is allowed to spread through society, the quicker it will mutate and new strains will be formed.
The vaccine itself isn’t the issue, as Mr Michaelis notes it’s important to remember “current vaccines can be readily adapted to novel variants”, but it’s about the time it will take to produce enough doses to fight off the new strain.
He added: “Since it will take years until a large fraction of the world population may receive COVID-19 vaccines, we will have to live with the threat of new variants for the foreseeable future.”
All-in-all, Mr Michaelis praised the UK’s vaccine rollout, which he said “has come far” for a country with one of the highest death tolls in the developed world.
Until recently, the UK’s high numbers of COVID-19 infections presented a threat to other countries – but the positions seem to have switched for now.
Professor Michaelis concluded: “It is not yet clear whether the COVID-19 numbers will continue to decline in the UK as they have in recent weeks.
“Low case numbers are still the most reliable protection from further waves, deaths and the re-introduction of severe restrictions and lockdowns.
“With the vaccine rollout and increased testing capacities, there is a unique chance to reduce numbers to very low levels that can be controlled by identifying and isolating infected individuals.
“If we achieve this, the threat posed by new variants would also be drastically reduced.”