A scientist who contributed to the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine has warned this pandemic won’t be the last and the next could be worst.
Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert, one of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine inventors, said the next outbreak could be ‘more contagious’ and ‘more lethal’.
The vaccinologist said scientific advances achieved since the emergence of the coronavirus ‘must not be lost’.
Delivering the 44th prestigious Richard Dimbleby Lecture, Dame Sarah said: ‘This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods.
‘The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both.’
She added: ‘We cannot allow a situation where we have gone through all we have gone through, and then find that the enormous economic losses we have sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness.
‘The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost.’
On the need for future pandemic readiness, Dame Sarah continued: ‘Just as we invest in armed forces and intelligence and diplomacy to defend against wars, we must invest in people, research and manufacturing and institutions to defend against pandemics.’
She also said there was no reason why a universal flu vaccine could not be developed in order to wipe out the annual threat the disease causes.
Dame Sarah warned it was too early to tell what effect the Omicron variant will have on the course of the pandemic.
Experts are racing to understand the nature of the new strain and to what extent existing vaccines can still prevent it for causing severe disease.
On Sunday, the UK Health Security Agency said a further 86 cases of Omicron had been confirmed in the UK, 68 in England and 18 in Scotland, bringing the total to 246.
Speaking about the Omicron variant, Dame Sarah said: ‘The spike protein of this variant contains mutations already known to increase transmissibility of the virus.
‘But there are additional changes that may mean antibodies induced by the vaccines, or by infection with other variants, may be less effective at preventing infection with Omicron.
‘Until we know more, we should be cautious, and take steps to slow down the spread of this new variant.
‘But as we have seen before, reduced protection against infection and mild disease does not necessarily mean reduced protection against severe disease and death.’
Professor Paul Hunter, from the school of medicine at the University of East Anglia, told the BBC that Covid-19 is ‘going to be around forever’, adding: ‘…we will be repeatedly infected with new variants but by and large, they’ll just be another cause of the common cold and at that point, we’ll stop worrying about it, but we’re not we’re not quite there yet.’
He also said he did not expect to increased transmission on Christmas Day because people tend to interact with fewer people on the core festive days compared to their usual working lives.
On Sunday a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), which advises the government, said new travel restrictions would not make a ‘material difference’ as the variant is already ‘spreading pretty rapidly’.
Professor Mark Woolhouse told the BBC: ‘I think that may be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
‘If Omicron is here in the UK, and it certainly is, if there’s community transmission in the UK, and it certainly looks that way, then it’s that community transmission that will drive a next wave.’
The full lecture will be broadcast on BBC One and iPlayer on Monday at 10:35PM.
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