Covid and flu – why is it such a lethal combo? Expert claims 60,000 fatalities ‘realistic’
Jenny Harries says UK should be 'sensibly worried' about flu
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The coronavirus pandemic has left Britain open to a deadly flu epidemic prompting the UK Government to urge eligible individuals to take up the offer of the influenza vaccine and booster Covid jabs. Influenza infections declined dramatically in 2020 due to Covid restrictions quashing the spread of these viruses – but this year with restrictions eased, experts are warning of the potentially devastating combination of COVID-19 and the flu.
The coronavirus pandemic has been the worst and most urgent global medical crisis in many years.
Every country around the world has been fighting against the virus – but now as the winter months draw closer, the Government has taken steps to ramp up its influenza vaccination efforts to protect more lives.
The big concern this year is if there is a resurgence of Covid with other respiratory illnesses coming back strongly alongside it, particularly the flu.
Influenza infections rapidly declined and largely disappeared across many nations last year as the Covid pandemic took prominence.
Social distancing measures used to contain COVID were even more effective in reducing the spread of influenza.
However, as Covid protections have been eased in many countries this year, the UK and other countries are braced for a particularly ferocious flu season.
Professor Martin Michaelis a virologist and professor of molecular medicine at the University of Kent said more research is needed to understand about co-infections of Covid and the flu, but essentially dealing with both at the same time stresses the bodily system.
Professor Michaelis told Express.co.uk: “We know that such co-infections happen in humans. Moreover, there are data from human patients and animal experiments suggesting that infections with both viruses result in more severe disease and higher mortality.
“However, more research is needed to understand the impact of co-infections in more detail and to investigate the underlying molecular processes.
“It makes intuitive sense that simultaneously dealing with two viruses is more difficult for the immune system than dealing with just one virus at a time.”
Britain could be hit with an early flu outbreak as a result of cases already soaring, a London’s Francis Crick Institute flu scientist this week warned.
This damning assessment came amid a warning immunity against the flu virus was so low after the coronavirus lockdowns, this year as many as 60,000 could be killed as a result.
These horrifying figures prompted the Government to ramp up its vaccination efforts for the flu – vaccinating more individuals than is typical and urging all vulnerable people to get jabbed as soon as possible.
Professor Michaelis warned 60,000 deaths is a “realistic scenario”.
He told Express.co.uk: “The number of severe COVID-19 cases is unlikely to surge in the same way as last winter due to the immunity provided by vaccines and previous infections.”
The virologist said it is however difficult to forecast how a flu season will develop as the influenza viruses change each year.
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As a result of variations with influenza each year, the vaccine is often adapted each year to tackle the most prominent and prolific strains.
But cases of the flu dropped so significantly last year meaning scientists have not has as much information upon which to base their design for this year’s flu vaccine.
Professor Michaelis told Express.co.uk: “The efficacy of the flu vaccines depends on how well the virus strains, which are used for the vaccines, match the influenza viruses that will actually be circulating…After a year largely without flu cases, such predictions are more difficult than normal.”
The molecular medicine expert added: “Low flu levels in the human population mean that it is more likely that new strains, against which we have little pre-existing immunity, replace the old ones, against which we have already developed some level of immunity in the past.
“At the same time, unexpected changes can also affect the efficacy of the vaccines, because they may not match well. Indeed, early data seem to suggest that some influenza virus strains, which used to be among the most dominant ones in humans, may have largely or completely disappeared.
“If other unexpected influenza viruses can fill this gap, this may result in a particularly bad flu season.”
He added vaccination for both Covid and the flu this year is crucial.
Professor Michaelis said: “Hopefully, high vaccination rates and increased caution turn the dire projections into self-defeating prophecies.”
The combination of flu and Covid is dangerous not only for the individual infected – but also for the UK’s healthcare system.
Professor Michaelis said the impact of coronavirus and the flu together could put the NHS and hospitals under immense pressure.
He told Express.co.uk, if the flu season turns out to be particularly bad this winter, the hospitals “might be at risk of becoming overwhelmed again.”
Last year, Covid protective measures suppressed the spread of the flu “almost completely” the virologist claimed – but now with restrictions lifted, it is expected the flu will return.
The University of Kent virologist said the resurgence of the common cold so far this year – at rates much higher than normally seen – is another indicator the Government’s fears about Covid and the flu are justified.
He said common colds, like the influenza virus, were quickly returned after the removal of all COVID-19 measures.
Professor Michaelis told Express.co.uk: “The current level of infections with common cold viruses is much higher than it used to be at this time of the year.
“Thus, it seems likely that we will see a similar picture with the flu and that the return of the common colds heralds the return of the flu.”
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