Relaxing coronavirus restrictions could pave the way for new virus mutations that are resistant to vaccines, researchers have suggested.
A new article warns against relaxing measures prematurely, and describes an “arms race” against Covid-19.
Experts at the University of East Anglia and the Earlham Institute argue that rising cases could provide opportunities for the virus to evolve into even more transmissible variants.
It comes as official figures on Monday showed that the number of newly reported Covid-19 in the UK dropped for the sixth day in a row.
However, the impact of the July 19 easing will not be known for a number of weeks.
Lead author and editor in chief of Virulence, Professor Kevin Tyler from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “Over the past 17 months, economies, education and mental well-being have suffered tremendously due to the restrictions imposed in an attempt to stem the spread of the pandemic.
“Although vaccines have weakened the link between infection and mortality, they should not be used as an argument to justify a broad change in policy for countries experiencing an exponential increase in infection numbers.
“This is because most of the world’s population are still unvaccinated, and even in countries with efficient vaccination programmes, a significant proportion of society, particularly children, remain unprotected.
“Relaxing restrictions boosts transmission and allows the virus population to expand, which enhances its adaptive evolutionary potential and increases the risk of vaccine-resistant strains emerging by a process known as antigenic drift.
“Put simply, limiting the spread of Covid-19 as much as possible restricts the number of future deaths by restricting the rate with which new variants arise.
“Successive SARS-CoV-2 variants, such as the Alpha and Delta variants, have displaced one another since the outbreak.
“Slowing down the rate of new variant emergence requires us to act fast and decisively, reducing the number of infected people including children with vaccines and in combination with other public health policies.
“In most cases, children are not vaccinated against Covid-19 because the risk to them becoming seriously ill is very low.
“But new strains may evolve with higher transmissibility in children, and vaccinating children may become necessary to control the emergence of new variants.”
He added that the policy of relaxing restrictions while children are not vaccinated, risks inadvertently selecting for virulent variants that are better able to infect children and are more problematic in vulnerable groups.
Co-lead author and evolutionary biologist Professor Cock Van Oosterhout, from UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences, said: “We have an arms race on our hands.
“On the human side, the arms race is fought with vaccines, new technology such as the NHS Covid-19 App, and our behavioural change – but the virus fights back by adapting and evolving.
“It is unlikely we will get ahead in this arms race unless we can significantly reduce the population size of the virus.
“But given that the infection rate is about the same now as it was during the first wave, we are pretty much ‘at evens’ with this virus. And as with many other coevolutionary arms races, there are no winners.
“But what you cannot do is suddenly drop your guard in the middle of an arms race.
“That gives your opponent – the virus – a real advantage.
“So we must continue doing the things we have been doing for the past 18 months, particularly in countries where the number of infected people is increasing.”
He added that entrusting public health measures to personal responsibility was a “laissez-faire approach”, Prof Van Oosterhout added.
“During exponential transmission of virus, we need an ongoing, mandatory public health policy that includes social distancing and the compulsory wearing of facemasks in crowded indoor spaces such as shops and on public transport.”
Co-author and director of the Earlham Institute (EI), Professor Neil Hall, said: “As long as there are large numbers of unvaccinated people around the world transmitting the virus, we’re all at risk.
“High numbers of Covid-19 cases increase the likelihood the virus will evolve to become more virulent, more transmissible, or capable of evading vaccines.”
The article is published in the journal Virulence.