We knew little about COVID-19 in 2020. As we enter 2023, Google Scholar searches produce around five million results that contain the term.
How will the pandemic in 2023 be felt? Given the many unknowns, this question is difficult to answer. The scientific community was focusing on the identification of key parameters that could help make projections about the severity and spread of the virus. This is now much more complicated and unpredictable due to the complex interaction of COVID variants and vaccination.
This doesn’t mean that there is no room for complacency. While the percentage of people infected has fluctuated over time, this number has not fallen below 1.25 percent (or one in 80) in England during 2022. COVID is still very present and people are getting infected every day.
The UK has a 3.4% rate of long-term COVID symptoms, which is one in thirty people. The cumulative risk of developing long-term COVID increases the more people are infected.
The UK’s health system faces immense pressure. Pre-COVID wait times are extremely high, which has been made worse by the pandemic.
Why COVID-19 projections are becoming more difficult
At the beginning of the pandemic, simple models were used to project the potential number of COVID cases, as well as the effects on the population and healthcare needs.
To produce the first projections, there were only a few variables. This was because the COVID original strain was the only one that was commonly found.
These assumptions are no longer valid. A large portion of the world’s population has had COVID. There are substantial differences in the protection levels for different vaccines and the doses that people have received. A total number of 13 million vaccine doses have been administered. However, this is not an equitable amount.
Modeling works best when people behave in predictable ways, regardless of whether they are normal, pre-pandemic, or under severe social restrictions. Modeling becomes more complicated as people adjust to the virus and determine whether there are any risks or benefits to their behavior.
Becomes more difficult when surveillance is reduced. This was especially important during the COVID emergency response. It included surveillance of COVID victims and variant surveillance. This allowed for new variants, such as the omicron, to be identified quickly and prepared responses.
Particularly, the UK produced two million COVID sequences from February 2022 to February 2022. This account for one-quarter of all global genome sequencing output. However, sequencing activity has decreased which could increase the time required to identify new variants.
The pandemic isn’t over
The world still has significant differences in the way pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions are implemented. These include the use of masks and COVID testing, building ventilation, and the use and misuse of masks. There is a danger that variants of existing defenses may emerge as governments relax and sometimes re-tighten responses to respond to social and medical pressures.
People’s behavior will have an impact on the next stages of the pandemic. How much time we spend at home, and how close we are to infectious people.
It is possible that new variants of the order delta or omicron will be developed, although it is not certain. It’s crucial to have plans in place in case this happens, in order to deal with the waning interest and resurgent misinformation.
Modeling can be made more difficult by the evolution of viruses.
Beyond 2023 – The next pandemic
It is important to inquire about the amount of learning that was done during the COVID pandemic in order to improve the response to the next one.
We’ve seen national short-term interests prioritized during this pandemic. This meant that national responses to vaccine equity were given priority while ignoring the long-term availability of vaccines. While Covax is a worthy initiative that aims to make COVID vaccines and treatments more accessible, it’s difficult to create incentives for countries to work together to lower long-term global risk.
As with any political response, the priorities of the emergency phase can all too easily be forgotten, such as governments’ abilities to manufacture vaccines. The UK government’s sale of the Vaccine Manufacturing and Innovation Centre is an example of this. The capacity to develop and produce vaccines quickly would stand us in good stead for the next pandemic, but these priorities now have to compete against others that are more immediate or politically expedient.
The UK’s CoVID inquiry will be filled with thousands of pages of evidence. Many submissions will give clear and consistent accounts of “lessons learned”. It is another matter whether those lessons are actually put into practice.