As the world passes a grim marker of 4 million deaths from COVID-19, a group of U.K. scientists and health experts has sounded the alarm over easing social-distancing restrictions too soon, with one warning of “hundreds of superspreader events.”
The group held an emergency summit outlining concerns laid out in a letter to medical journal the Lancet and signed by more than 120 of the world’s leading scientists to protest the U.K. government’s strategy to abandon most restrictions in England on July 19 in the midst of another surge in new COVID cases.
So-called Freedom Day would see the lifting of such measures as limits on social gatherings, legal mandates on mask wearing and quarantines for fully vaccinated individuals returning from specific countries. The government was expected to confirm the ending of those restrictions on Thursday, and that began with easing travel restrictions.
And as appalling as the milestone of 4 million reported deaths is, the total is probably double that, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet, told the summit, warning of a resurgence in new cases globally resulting from the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“Across Europe right now, the delta variant is surging in several nations, including here, of course, despite low seasonality and despite rising vaccinations, and globally transmission is increasing in a large number of locations and again also driven mostly by the delta there. And these surges are taking place because of premature relaxation of mandates,” said Horton.
“The specific concern is that there is a considerable escape of the delta variant from immunity derived from past infections and even from vaccinations,” he said, citing Institute of Health Metrics data that predicted an extra 10,000 deaths by October in the U.K., where 128,000 lives have been lost to date.
To safely ease restrictions, Horton said, a country should be aiming to have 70% of its population fully vaccinated. The U.K. is at 51%, and even Europe’s most vaccinated county, Malta, is just at 68%. The U.S. has vaccinated 48% of its total population — with 67.2% of those 18 and over having gotten at least one vaccine dose — while many African nations barely have 0.1% vaccinated, according to the New York Times.
Horton also advised following the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, who has recommended mask use and physical distancing, even among those who have been vaccinated.
“If we don’t do this, if we continue to live with it, it will not be freedom; it will be a self-inflicted wound of uncontrolled transmission of the delta,” he said.
His warning and those of other health officials and scientists come as delta-variant-driven outbreaks pick up across the U.S., in states such as Missouri, which has seen surging cases and overloaded hospital intensive-care units, amid low vaccination levels.
Also on the call was Trish Greenhalgh, a primary-care professor at the University of Oxford, who also hammered home the urgent need for continued mask wearing and social distancing.
The U.K. has the fourth-highest daily case level in the world, she pointed out — 32,548 tested positive on Wednesday, a number not seen since January, as the delta variant sweeps across European regions. “Yes, the link between infection and serious illness has been weakened, but it has not been broken,” with just half the population fully vaccinated, she noted.
Her concerns echoed a major concern of the Lancet letter: that the U.K. government’s exit strategy from restrictions would prove “fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants.”
A good-fitting mask, Greenhalgh said, will filter out between 60% and 90% of virus particles. “[T]he best way to reduce the transmission of this virus is first [to] spend as little time as possible indoors, sharing air with people. Second, if you must put people together indoors, keep them 2 meters apart. Thirdly, make sure that people indoors are wearing well-fitting masks, and, fourthly, make sure those indoor spaces are well-ventilated and that all the air is filtered,” she said.
Kailash Chand, honorary vice president of the British Medical Association, also railed against the government’s easing plans, telling the summit that the level of daily cases in the U.K. could reach 100,000 over the summer.
“Even if 1% of those go to hospital, there could be 1,000 people admitted to the hospital every day,” he said.
Chand expressed worries in particular over rising cases of young people needing treatment for COVID-19 infections, and so-called long hauler clinics filling up. Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser, this week warned that the young could be particularly vulnerable to lingering symptoms of the illness.
The panel also heard from Deepti Gurdasani, clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer in machine learning at Queen Mary University of London, who likened loosening restrictions in the U.K. too soon to a “dangerous experiment” that has “huge potential to lead to new and dangerous variants that could escape vaccines even more,” which could have massive global impacts as well.
Gurdasani criticized the U.K. government’s reluctance to vaccinate children, with 12- to 17-year-olds eligible for vaccination in the U.S., as well as in Israel, which is also struggling to control a delta-led outbreak.
In a question-and-answer session at the summit, she warned there was no evidence that the virus has stopped mutating. “Every three months or so, or even in lesser time periods, we’ve seen new waves emerge that are more transmissible, more severe, more likely to escape vaccines, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that this will not happen again, unless we prevent transmission,” said Gurdasani.
Gurdasani also cautioned that some people who have been vaccinated earlier on in the pandemic may be losing protection for the winter, due to the ability of the variant to escape the vaccine.
Rachel Clarke, an NHS palliative-care doctor and author, told the summit that a major teaching hospital in Leeds, England, had to cancel many major cancer surgeries on Wednesday because there weren’t enough intensive-care beds.
More than 5 million patients are awaiting surgery in the U.K., Clarke said.