Next Covid strain could kill many more, warn scientists ahead of England restrictions ending

Demands grow for government science chiefs to reveal evidence backing move to lift last protective measures

By Robin McKie Science editor and Michael Savage Policy editor

A future variant of Covid-19 could be much more dangerous and cause far higher numbers of deaths and cases of serious illness than Omicron, leading UK scientists have warned.

As a result, many of them say that caution needs to be taken in lifting the last Covid restrictions in England, as Boris Johnson plans to do next week.

At the same time, demands are growing for Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, the government’s most senior advisers on Covid, to hold a press conference to reveal what evidence there was to back the decision to end all pandemic restrictions.

The dangers posed by accepting the widespread assumption that Covid-19 variants would continue to get milder in their impact was highlighted by epidemiologist Prof Mark Woolhouse, of Edinburgh University.

“The Omicron variant did not come from the Delta variant. It came from a completely different part of the virus’s family tree. And since we don’t know where in the virus’s family tree a new variant is going to come from, we cannot know how pathogenic it might be. It could be less pathogenic but it could, just as easily, be more pathogenic,” he said.

This point was backed by virologist Prof Lawrence Young of Warwick University. “People seem to think there has been a linear evolution of the virus from Alpha to Beta to Delta to Omicron,” he told the Observer. “But that is simply not the case. The idea that virus variants will continue to get milder is wrong. A new one could turn out to be even more pathogenic than the Delta variant, for example.”

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