UK facilitates COVID-19 testing, monitoring despite increase in cases
UK facilitates COVID-19 testing, monitoring despite increase in cases

UK facilitates COVID-19 testing, monitoring despite increase in cases

LONDON (AP) – After dropping almost all coronavirus restrictions last month, the UK is now ending some of its most widespread COVID-19 testing and monitoring programs, a move that some researchers fear will complicate efforts to detect the virus and discover worrying new varieties.

Officials have largely dismissed these concerns, despite a recent rise in cases across Europe, and insist that high immunization rates will help dampen future disease waves.

Based on how quickly new varieties have emerged, some experts suggest that the next one may arrive as early as May. They warn that British authorities should take the time to prepare instead of dismantling their pandemic defenses.

Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, called it “an unfortunate pattern” that has been seen repeatedly through the outbreak.

“Every time a wave of COVID passes, the government acts as if it is the end of the pandemic,” he said.

Without testing and monitoring, new clusters or signs that the virus is developing may be missed, Woolhouse said.

“I do not understand why governments do not learn this lesson,” he said.

Last week, the UK announced that it was suspending funding for one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive coronavirus monitoring programs, in addition to dropping research that tracks real-time symptoms and infections in healthcare workers. And from April, free COVID-19 tests for most people in England will also end.

As most COVID-19 restrictions have been eased across Europe, including Austria, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany and France, the number of infections has risen in recent days. The increase is partly driven by the slightly more contagious omicron descendant BA.2 and by the fact that people largely give up masks and gather in larger groups.

In the last two weeks, COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have both increased slightly in the UK.

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid described the rise as “expected” and the country as “in a very good position.”

Several health executives in the UK have questioned the wisdom of giving up free tests and measures such as stopping financial support for people with infections who isolate themselves.

“The government can not wave a magic wand and pretend that the threat has completely disappeared,” said Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the UK National Health Service.

However, other officials have pointed out that the testing and monitoring programs are hugely expensive. Last month, the Swedish authorities stopped extensive testing and said the cost and relevance were no longer justifiable.

“If we were to have comprehensive tests tailored to everyone who has COVID-19, it would mean half a billion kroner a week (about $ 55 million) and 2 billion a month ($ 220 million),” said Swedish public health director Karin Tegmark. Wisell last month when their test programs were shelved.

British officials have now apparently made the same calculation.

“The question is whether we can afford to keep using these expensive tools if it looks like COVID is becoming endemic,” said Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester.

He said it was likely that the virus would develop into a more transmissible and less dangerous form, but acknowledged that the process could take years – and that we would likely face sporadic increases until it happens.

Salim Abdool Karim, an epidemiologist on infectious diseases at the University of KwaZulu-Natal who previously advised the South African government, said there were clues in COVID-19’s track record that allow for a “trained guess.” As the country that first discovered the omicron and where it first spread, South Africa has been closely monitored by many European and other public health researchers to see what may come next in the pandemic.

Karim predicts that the next big wave of disease may come within a few weeks, noting that South Africa had been hit by COVID-19 increases every three months, meaning the next wave could start in May.

Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, said we would probably see a different variant or two each year, based on how quickly coronavirus mutates.

Yet many experts do not believe that future waves of COVID-19 will be as brutal as the past.

“We are somewhere else because we have vaccines and we know what works,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, President of Global Health at Columbia University.

“Meanwhile, it is the wrong time to phase out the strong public health systems we have relied on throughout the pandemic,” El-Sadr said.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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