Government has ‘really dropped the ball’ on Covid, says virologist

Risk of long-term problems rises with repeat infections, says Dr Gerald Barry of UCD

The Government has “really dropped the ball” in the battle against Covid-19 since a big spike in infections at the start of the year, an expert has warned.

Dr Gerald Barry, assistant professor of virology at University College Dublin, suggested the Coalition’s approach to the pandemic since January has prompted the population to believe it was over.

The disease will continue to erupt in waves causing significant disruption to lives in Ireland “for the foreseeable future”, he said. “I think unfortunately in terms of communication the Government has really dropped the ball when we came through our wave in January. There was an attitude, maybe not directly expressed, but a feeling intimated that Covid was behind us when we moved beyond Easter and into the summer. There was an expectation that it wouldn’t be an issue any more.

“In fact the reality is that these waves are going to be a regular event for the foreseeable future, and it is very clear they are going to disrupt people’s lives,” he told RTÉ Radio. “The more times you get infected, the evidence suggests that you increase your risk of having issues such as long Covid and long-term impacts,” said Dr Barry.

The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 on Sunday rose by 14 from Friday to 826, while the number of people in intensive care units with Covid-19 remained at 32.

Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of UCD’s National Virus Reference Laboratory, said the current infection spike was being driven by Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, against which the population does not have full immunity. They are “sufficiently different” from previous variants so that any immunity from past Covid infections is not offering protection. This means anyone who contracted Covid around Christmas or the new year, say, is “unfortunately” at risk of catching it again.

He said natural immunity in 2020 looked like six to 12 months but as new variants emerge the duration of immunity is “quite short” and “more in the region of four to six months or maybe even less”.

While previous variants were more likely to cause severe disease, the dominant variants now have “sacrificed some of the severity for transmissibility”. But he cautioned there was no guarantee that future variants would not be as deadly as the early iterations of the virus.

Dr de Gascun told RTÉ's This Week it looked likely that Covid would remain in humans for potentially centuries to come, and will continue to wreak havoc in waves coming every three or four months.

“It has been a long 2½ years for us, but from a virus perspective that is not a long time. The virus has jumped a species barrier, it has entered a new host, and it is still adapting to that new host. Based on the fact that it has been so successful, it is likely it will reside in that new host now for many decades and centuries to come.”

Vaccinations and repeated infections would “build up a level of immunity in the population” but “the problem is we don’t know how long it will take to get there”.

Although it is difficult to predict how the virus will develop over the next six months, he says it “wouldn’t be unreasonable” to expect a large wave in the winter, particularly as the weather changes and people are indoors more.

Public-health advice on social distancing and mask-wearing remains to prevent infections while vaccinations were providing good protection against severe disease, he added.

Dr de Gascun said early results from trials on vaccines for the Omicron variant were “quite positive” but it would take some time before these were available, and there were also hopes of a “next-generation” vaccine against infection.