Dr Ultan Power told the News Letter that not only do we face the threat of new pandemics engulfing our society in the future, but it could be years before the last vestiges of Covid restrictions are finally abandoned.
The professor, who is an expert in respiratory viruses based at the medical school of Queen’s University Belfast was speaking as the UK hit a key milestone on Tuesday this week – exactly one year since the start of the first nationwide lockdown.
Asked about the prospect of another coronavirus-style pandemic, he said: “It’d be prudent to anticipate that this will repeat itself in a matter of years.
“We’ve already had, over the last 20 years, five or six different viruses, some of which could have potentially become pandemic –and two of which did: the swine flu of 2009, and this coronavirus pandemic now.”
As to when all coronavirus restrictions will be lifted, Prof Power said: “Complete absence might take a while; it could potentially be years.
“When I say complete absence, I mean where people are back to full interactions the way they were before.
“Because this is likely to become what we call an ‘endemic’ virus, so it’s likely to come back every winter.”
This is particularly so if there remain a number of people who never get vaccinated.
Added to which is “the other concern – we don’t know how long the vaccines will work for”.
“If we assume for example the vaccines don’t induce long-term immunity, then it’s likely people will have to be re-vaccinated. Therefore we’ll haver to keep a very close eye on this virus for a while.”
In terms of how we can react better to a future pandemic, top of his list was locking down faster and harder.
“As soon as we saw what was happening in Italy,” he continued, “there should’ve been travel restrictions in place very quickly.
“This is the reason the virus was introduced was introduced and re-introduced repeatedly.
“That’s hopefully something we can learn for the future.”
Meanwhile our capacity to do mass testing was “nowhere near enough to meet what was coming down the road”.
Likewise we should “learn a lot” from the shortcomings of the track and trace system, and ensure that we have – or can manufacture– big supplies of PPE “in short order” when we need them.
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