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 super spreader events.”
The group held an emergency summit outlining concerns laid out in a letter to The Lancet medical journal 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 19th 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, Dr. Richard Horton, editor in chief of medical journal The Lancet told the panel, as he warned about the resurgence in new cases globally resulting from the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Read: Delta variant of COVID-19 poses risk to unvaccinated Americans and could reverse declining cases and deaths, report warns
“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.
Read: As worries emerge about the delta variant and the J&J shot, health officials — and, so far, the research — say the vaccinated are still protected
To safely ease restrictions, Horton said countries should be aiming for 70% of the population being fully vaccinated — a level that is just at 51% in the U.K., while even most-vaccinated Malta is just at 68%. The U.S. has vaccinated 48% of its population, while many African nations barely have 0.1%, according to The New York Times.
He also advised following the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the 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 that of other health officials and scientists comes as the delta variant 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. The delta variant has also swept across Europe.
Also on the call was Trish Greenhalgh, professor of Primary Care Health Sciences, Medical Sciences Division, University of Oxford, who also hammered home the urgent need for continued masks 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. “Yes, the link between infection and serious illness has been weakened, but it has not been broken,” given just half the population is fully vaccinated, she noted.
Her concerns echoed one 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. “…the best way to reduce the transmission of this virus is first spend as little time as possible indoors, sharing air with people. Second, if you must put people together indoors, keep them two 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.
Professor 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 everyday,” which places huge demand on health services, 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. Prof 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 Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer in Machine Learning, 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 being or having been vaccinated 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 later, she said warned there was no evidence that the virus has even stopped mutating. “Every three months or so, or even in less 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.
Dr. Rachel Clarke, NHS palliative care doctor and author, told the summit that a major teaching hospital in Leeds had to cancel some of their major cancer surgeries on Wednesday, on the day of many operations because there weren’t enough intensive care beds. She noted over 5 million patients are waiting for surgery in the U.K.