The UK’s Covid vaccine program and delta surge means it is now a check case for the world

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12 years and older New Yorkers are getting vaccinated at the St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church in Bronx of New York City, United States on June 13, 2021.

Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

LONDON — The U.K. has one of the highest Covid-19 vaccination rates in the world, yet it’s seeing a new surge in coronavirus cases largely attributed to the delta variant that first originated in India.

Experts say that close attention is being paid to the latest data out of the U.K. as it could be a bellwether for others. And there is a fear that where the U.K. now treads, others — like the U.S. — could follow.

“All eyes (are) on UK Covid trends,” Kallum Pickering, senior economist and director at Berenberg Bank, said in a note Tuesday.

“With its high vaccination rate but a rising number of daily recorded infections, the UK has turned into the test case for whether mass vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 can bring (an) end to the repeated cycles of lockdowns and other harsh social distancing protocols that have wreaked havoc on the global economy ever since the pandemic struck in early 2019,” he said.

Pickering noted that medical data suggests that the U.K.’s high rate of vaccination has significantly weakened the link between recorded Covid infections and complications from the disease, supporting the bank’s call that “the U.K. can get through the new wave of infections without having to tighten restrictions and thus with only limited economic damage.”

Pickering said the data highlighted that this wave of infections was unlike previous ones with the number of recorded infections rising at a slower pace than during the previous wave, and that there had been no clear rise in deaths despite the rise in cases.

Secondly, he noted that new hospital admissions had increased less than recorded infections — and by much less than during the winter wave.

Re-opening on track?

Deutsche Bank Research Strategist Jim Reid noted on Wednesday that while there is “continued concern” about the spread of the delta variant, “the one good piece of news is that the latest wave has seen the age distribution of cases shift substantially lower relative to previous waves.”

Younger age groups are much less likely to be severely affected by the virus than older people. But still, the longer the young remain unvaccinated or partially vaccinated the virus is allowed to spread and potentially more variants can emerge.  

So far, the vaccines have proved resilient to new variants, remaining largely effective in preventing serious Covid-19 for fully-vaccinated people. An analysis from Public Health England released last Monday found two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines were highly effective against hospitalization from the delta variant.

In order to fully vaccinate more people, the U.K. government delayed the removal of remaining Covid restrictions in England until July 19. It has insisted that the lifting of restrictions on that date is still on track despite the spread of the delta variant.

“The risk that the re-opening could be reversed remains low,” Berenberg’s Pickering said.

“The UK is far away from the point at which medical capacities could be stretched to such an extent that new restrictions would be needed,” he noted, adding that the continued rapid rollout of vaccines could even prompt daily infections to plateau in the coming weeks before falling thereafter.

“Although the pandemic is far from over, and potential new variants that render the current generation of vaccines ineffective presents a serious risk, recent virus and vaccine developments support our positive economic outlook for the UK and other advanced economies,” he said.  

Winter surge?

What comes later this year when the flu season kicks in is more uncertain. England’s top medical officer warned last week that the coming winter will continue to be difficult for the country’s health system despite the country’s successful coronavirus vaccination program.

In a speech to the NHS Confederation last Thursday, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the current wave of Covid infections due to the delta variant would likely be followed by another surge in the winter.

Covid-19 “has not thrown its last surprise at us and there will be several more (variants) over the next period,” he said, according to Sky News. He added that it would likely take five years before there are vaccines that could “hold the line” to a very large degree against a range of coronavirus variants.

And until then, he said that new vaccination programs and booster shots would be needed. Some countries, like the U.S. and U.K., have already signaled that they could roll out Covid-19 booster shots within a year but pressure is building on governments to mobilize booster shot programs — no easy task given the ongoing uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, vaccines and variants.