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Next Covid variant could be worse than Omicron, says scientific adviser

Coronavirus has not gone away and the next variant to come along could be more severe than Omicron, Sir Patrick Vallance has warned. The chief scientific adviser said it is a ‘mistake’ to assume that the more the virus evolves, the less serious its mutations will become.

‘This virus is not going away. It hasn’t stopped evolving. It’s been quite an unstable period but the virus is changing very rapidly,’ he told MPs. ‘It’s a mistake to assume all evolution will drive to reduce severity.’ The Omicron variant spread rapidly across the UK in the run-up to Christmas, causing some restrictions to be reintroduced.

Cases have spiked again recently, with more than one million people testing positive in the space of a week. The rise is being driven by the Omicron BA.2 variant, a more transmissible form of Omicron. Sir Patrick said it would be a ‘lumpy and bumpy’ road before Covid reached a stable, background level in the UK, with ‘further viral evolution’ expected.

He warned against a reduction in testing, saying a ‘strong surveillance system’ was ‘absolutely key’ to living with Covid and detecting new strains. It comes as the government is due to scrap free lateral flow tests for everyone except NHS workers, care home staff and vulnerable patients.

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A fourth jab for over-75s, care home residents and the immunocompromised is also due to be rolled out in the coming weeks as part of the government’s ‘living with Covid’ strategy. But Sir Patrick said a four-monthly booster programme is not realistic and Britain needed to move to a ‘sensible annual cycle’ of immunisation to ensure the vulnerable are protected.

Speaking at the Science and Technology Select Committee he said: ‘What isn’t credible is to start having vaccines every four months for everybody. That’s just not the way this works. ‘What I think it will probably look like will be annual vaccines for a certain part of the population, as we have for flu.

‘What we need to move to though is a better understanding of how to predict which vaccine is required each year. ‘There are lots of possibilities. You could choose to go after the latest variant, you could choose to try and design a vaccine that fits somewhere in the middle and covers everybody.

‘We have to move to a sensible annual cycle.’ Sir Patrick said the current surge of cases was coming to an end and the severity of Covid was being kept under control by vaccines and other measures.

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However he said it was important to look back at lockdown and ‘dissect’ which parts had worked in case further restrictions are ever needed. He said it was clear that there were ‘detrimental effects’ from lockdown and said it was something that should not be undertaken lightly in future.

Sir Patrick said: ‘I do think it is now going to be incredibly important to look internationally and nationally to try to dissect which components of restrictions are the ones that were the most important. ‘The world should learn from this so there is an advice handbook for the future and also to take into account the different characteristics of viruses.’

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