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WHAT'S NEXT FOR COVID-19?

Hand holding Crystal Ball up against the setting Sun

Tuesday 18 January 2022

Dr Lindsay Broadbent, research fellow, School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine, gives her thoughts on the evidence.

 

When it comes to Covid-19, nobody has a crystal ball. But based on the evidence and knowledge we now have, there are things we can be reasonably sure about for 2022. 

The emergence of new variants will likely continue to be a theme over the coming year, just as it was in 2021. All viruses mutate – that’s why we have a new flu vaccine every year. But the SARS-CoV-2 virus is just a baby – only two years old. It’s still adapting to its new host and working out how best to infect it, so we’re watching its evolution in real time. I must admit, I have been surprised at the speed at which the variants occurred. It wouldn’t surprise me if we run out of Greek letters to name them in 2022. (If we do, I believe the plan is to move to constellations.)

But the good news is that we are now able to identify new variants far more quickly. With Omicron, for example, we’ve seen just how fast the data turnover has been. That speed of information will just get better and better, and will give us even more knowledge. My work involves investigating how viruses like SARS-CoV-2 cause disease and why the severity of that disease varies. If we know how the virus is likely to evolve and how it will progress, then we can try and get two steps ahead of it. 

We’re also likely to see an increased emphasis on treatments. In 2020 and 2021, it was all about the vaccines. Now, we’re thinking more about how we can manage infections and hospitalisations among both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Developing these new drugs will be crucial to managing whatever comes next. We also need to discover more about Long Covid: another key part of my work is investigating how respiratory viruses affect us in the long-term. We still don’t understand why this damage happens – if we knew, perhaps we could stop it or reverse it. 

We also need to ensure that these treatments are available for everyone who needs them. The pandemic has played out very differently in developed countries compared to developing lower-middle-income countries. And it’s not just about vaccine inequality – access to other medications for other medical conditions is also key. 

Here in Northern Ireland, we have seen that while the health service does an incredible job, underfunding and understaffing has become even more of an issue. Could any of us have coped without the health service, which dealt not just with Covid-19 and the vaccine rollout, but also all the other patients? The vaccine development and rollout are an incredible example of what the NHS can achieve when it’s given the right tools. But health workers are run ragged.

And my wish for 2022? That we argue less. The pandemic has been incredibly stressful for all of us, but the heated debates, the politicisation of science and the discourse around the pandemic has heightened that stress for many people. I’d like to think that, over the next few months, we’ll see a gleam of light at the end of the tunnel.

 

To find out more about Wellcome-Wolfson Institute For Experimental Medicine, an institute committed to research excellence in experimental medicine by making scientific breakthroughs in the mechanisms of disease, which we translate to innovative therapeutics to improve patient outcomes please click here.

 

For general enquiries about this story, or to submit graduate news items, please contact Natasha Sharma, Alumni Relations Manager, Development and Alumni Relations Office, Queen's University Belfast.

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