No one would blame Boris Johnson for wanting Covid-19 to be wiped out. The reality is that the disease is here to stay. New, more transmissible, variants have exposed the limits of trying to achieve herd immunity through vaccination. Sars-CoV-2 will be around for years. Viruses evolve usually into less deadlier forms. This time humanity faces a microscopic threat that has done the opposite. It is evolving to spread faster, infecting more people and claiming more lives. The public will have to coexist with Covid-19 much as it does with other endemic diseases like flu and measles.
Covid will remain persistently present, but the aim is to make it manageable. Society will need to adapt. The public should expect to have annual booster shots. Mask wearing and social distancing will be around for months to come. Schools will restart and offices may open, but there will have to be thought given on how to better ventilate them. Borders will need to be made less porous to variants. And a working, properly funded test, trace and isolate system is badly needed.
There is a race between variants and vaccines – and for humanity’s sake the latter must win. It’s likely to last for some time. Mutations appear to have made Covid better at infecting human cells or at evading antibodies. The news that the UK-produced Oxford/AstraZeneca candidate may provide less protection against the South African mutant virus, known as B1351, doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Two other vaccines when trialled against B1351 had been found to be less effective. It is important that people get jabbed with whatever vaccine they are offered. Some protection is better than none at all.
It might hurt our national pride that the vaccine produced by our scientists will be less effective than those produced by other nations, but the evidence had been building that it was less potent. The point is to work, quickly, on a new generation of vaccines to deal with the current and future variants. We should not be surprised by the evolution of Sars-CoV-2. There were three waves of deaths during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic; the second wave was four times deadlier than the first. One theory is that the particular circumstances of the war favoured this evolutionary path. There is also a debate whether viruses are living things. But Sars-CoV-2 acts like any other living thing. It seeks a habitat to thrive in.
Mr Johnson was to lay out a roadmap out of the current lockdown later this month. He no doubt would have liked to tell the country that normality was on the horizon, and the virus was under control. That message cannot be delivered now. Neither will his chancellor be able to reset his party’s economic message in early March, as he has been signalling.
The prime minister’s political rise has been due to his belief that he could change reality by manipulating words. He will undoubtedly be tempted to reach for a resonant phrase to claim victory. But he should resist the urge. The virus did not care how Mr Johnson described it or for the imagined successes his government claimed to have had. Instead it evolved into the Kent variant – B117. This appeared in England in September and then exploded across the country a few months later, bringing the NHS to its knees. In Brazil its variant rampaged through a city that was supposedly immune. Mr Johnson will face voters’ wrath if he makes the same mistake of declaring he has won a race the country has only just started.