International travel should slowly be reopened, with any traffic light system having the potential to be “leaky” for Covid variants, said a senior scientist.
Professor Robin Shattock, head of the Department of Mucosal Infection and Immunity at Imperial College London’s Medical Department, said an ideal scenario would be for people to be quarantined on their return from any country – although this is likely not seen as a practical option .
In an extensive interview, he said it is possible that the coronavirus will become a “rather trivial infection” for most people, while it is still uncertain whether the entire population will need to be vaccinated again every winter.
The Travel Task Force set up by Boris Johnson will report shortly. Many expect her to suggest a traffic light approach.
Depending on the infection rate and the prevalence of Covid-19 variants in overseas destinations, the countries are classified as red, amber or green.
In an interview with the PA news agency, Prof. Shattock said, “I suspect there will be pressure to start international travel again, probably still self-isolation / quarantine when you return to the UK.
“A system may be put in place to allow you to travel if you’ve had the vaccine.
“I don’t know that it is necessarily required by governments, but it can be prescribed by various airlines.”
“Or you may find that different governments around the world have put requirements in place so the UK might not say you can’t travel without a vaccine, but when you go to a vacation destination they might say, ‘Well, we’ ‘open up It for people who have been vaccinated “.
“It’s a very fluid image. I’m sure we’ll get back to international travel over time.
“I think it will be slow, I think it will be careful, and I don’t think it will likely take off in a big way until at least fall, when everyone hopefully had one if not two doses of a vaccine.”
Prof. Shattock said the traffic light system is “an approach, but it is leaking” due to the risk of importing worrying variants that could affect vaccines.
“There are always ways to get around this type of system. It could be a way of unblocking some travel, but it needs to be monitored very carefully. “
He said the ideal scenario would be for people to be quarantined when flying in from any country.
“I think that would be the ideal scenario, but if this is practical and if people accept that … because the law has to say you have to do that.” But people have to stick to it or it will be ineffective. “
However, he said that border controls “definitely make a difference” adding, “If you had opened travel fully tomorrow and everyone could come in and out of the country, we would be in a much worse situation.
“Well, it’s a good balance with everything. If you were just risk averse, you’d be very, very constrained. But that’s not exactly acceptable or practical.”
With regard to the development of the coronavirus, Prof. Shattock believes it is possible that it could become a “much more trivial infection” for the majority of the population.
“Then it’s more about keeping the vulnerable safe, but it won’t be that big of a problem,” he said.
“The variants are still a big question. But what is perhaps reassuring to some extent is that we don’t see variations going in all possible directions.
“What we are seeing with this current coronavirus is that it is showing up in different parts of the world with the same mutations, so it is converging rather than diverging.
“Since most viruses develop, they tend to develop more easily, but are less pathogenic and therefore cause less serious illness.
“So there are two options – it could become less threatening over time, or there could be new variants that we need to catch up with in the future and improve (with vaccines).
“We just have to see how it plays out, but it is definitely not a certainty that the entire population will need to be vaccinated year after year.
“I suspect this is less likely in the years to come, although I think older people are likely to need an annual vaccination.”
Prof. Shattock is currently working on variants with self-reinforcing RNA vaccine technology that use lower doses of RNA.
Thanks to his technology, vaccines can be adapted to all variants in just a few weeks, although Prof. Shattock is monitoring what can happen in future pandemics.
“The technology can be very easily adapted to any variation that comes our way … but we are very keen to see something completely new that might come out and we need to be prepared for any eventuality.”
Regarding the risk of future pandemics, he said: “We certainly know scientifically that this type of effect occurs more frequently.
“Covid was a big wake up call for the world, but in some ways making a vaccine for Covid-19 wasn’t as difficult as people had predicted, which is a good thing.”
“If something happened that poses a more difficult challenge, what we call Pandemic X, it would be a completely unknown virus – we know a lot about coronaviruses – but something that we have never seen and for which there is no scientific experience that is a much greater threat and challenge to humanity. “
As for Covid, there is an option to combine the flu vaccine with one against the virus, although “it will take time to put this together,” he said.
Currently, he believes the UK is ready to give booster vaccines this fall to treat worrying variants as originally identified in South Africa and Brazil.
“The unknowns are whether variants can circulate when everyone is vaccinated,” he said. “We really don’t know if this is going to be a very small problem or a very big one.
“It makes sense to have a variant booster ready for use.
“The other thing that we just have no idea about is the duration of protection these vaccines will have – is it 12 months, is it 24 months? We collect this data in real time.
“If protection is short-term, we need to have vaccines ready at least this winter to improve protection.
“Now it may be that we finish them and they are not really needed.”
He said it was not yet known whether the entire population would need to be re-vaccinated or whether doses would only be needed for the elderly and most at risk.
“I think we don’t know at the moment,” he said. “The reason we don’t know is that some of these antibody-based variants might not be as well protected, but we would also have T-cell immunity that is much broader and that the variants are less likely to be get around this.
“One of the possibilities is that this support, this T-cell immunity, can actually prevent you from being seriously unwell and ending up in the hospital.
“If so, you may not have to vaccinate the entire population, but it’s one of those tough decisions because we don’t know if it’s a problem until it’s a problem.”
Prof. Shattock said more data is needed on how well existing vaccines work against variants, but “the real problem right now is that we just need to vaccinate all of us so variants don’t become a problem”.
He added: “I think if we all get vaccinated it will be less of a concern.
“The real difficulty would be if we suddenly say, ‘Oh, everything is fine’ and we see the variations take off in a big way.
“We are in a phase where we have to get things done so that the history of the variants is not a big problem.”