A senior scientist said international travel should slowly reopen with any traffic light system that has the potential to “infiltrate” Covid variants.
Professor Robin Shattock, head of mucosal infection and immunity at Imperial College London’s medical department, said the ideal scenario would be for people to quarantine when they return from any country – but this was unlikely to be seen as a practical option.
He said in an extensive interview that it is possible for the coronavirus to become a “much less serious infection” for most people, but it is still unclear whether the entire population should need to be re-vaccinated every winter.
The travel task force set up by Boris Johnson is expected to report soon, and many expect him to propose a traffic light approach.
This ranks countries as red, amber or green, depending on infection rates and the prevalence of Covid-19 variants overseas.
In an interview with the PA news agency, Prof Shattock said, “When you return to the UK, I think there will probably be pressure to start international travel again in self-isolation / quarantine.
“If you have been vaccinated, a program that you are allowed to travel may have some applications.
“I don’t know if this will be mandated by governments, but it may be authorized by different carriers.
“Or you may find that different governments around the world are meeting the requirements, so the UK may not be saying that you can’t travel without vaccination, but if you’re going to a vacation destination, ‘well we’ open to vaccinated people ‘.
This is a very fluid picture. I am sure we will begin to return to international travel in time.
“I think it will be slow, I think it will be cautious, and I don’t think it will rise massively until the fall, at least until the fall when everyone will hopefully get a dose, if not two. Vaccine.”
Prof Shattock said the traffic light system “is an approach but will leak” due to the risk of importing alarming variants that could affect vaccines.
“There is always a possibility that they could surpass this kind of system. There may be a way to start releasing some travels, but it will need to be followed very carefully. “
He said the ideal scenario would be for people to quarantine when flying from any country.
“I think this would be an ideal scenario, but whether it’s practical and whether people will accept it… because the legislation requires that ‘this is what you have to do’. But people have to follow it, otherwise it will be ineffective.”
However, he said the border controls “definitely made a difference”: “If you opened the trip completely tomorrow and everyone could enter and leave the country, we would be in a much worse situation.
So, it’s a good balance with everything. If you were completely risk averse, you would have kept everything very, very limited. However, this is not necessarily acceptable or practical. “
As to how the coronavirus might evolve, Prof Shattock believes it could eventually become “much more than a very minor infection” for the majority of the population.
“Then it’s more about continuing to protect the vulnerable, but that won’t be that big of a problem,” he said.
“Variants are still a big question. But perhaps what is reassuring to some extent is that we do not see variants that change in all sorts of different directions.
“What we are seeing with this current coronavirus is that it occurs with the same mutations in different parts of the world, so it seems to converge rather than differentiate.
“As most viruses evolve, they tend to be transmitted more easily, but are less pathogenic, so they are less likely to cause serious disease.
“So there are two possibilities – they may become less threatening over time, or there may be new variants we need to catch up and increase (with vaccines) in the future.
“We just have to see how it turns out, but it is not certain that absolutely the entire population will have to be vaccinated every year.
“I suspect this is less likely in the coming years, but I think older people will probably need annual vaccinations.”
Prof Shattock is currently working on variants that use self-replicating RNA vaccine technology that use lower doses of RNA.
While Prof Shattock is mindful of what might happen in future pandemics, his technology means vaccines can be adapted in just a few weeks to account for any variant.
“The technology can be adapted very easily for any variant that might come our way … but we pay close attention to something completely new and we need to be prepared for any eventuality.”
Regarding the future epidemic risk, he said: “We certainly scientifically accept that such effects occur more frequently.
“Covid has had a big wake-up call to the world, but in some ways vaccinating against Covid-19 has not been as difficult as people imagined, and that’s a good thing.
“ If something arises, it’s a harder challenge, what we call pandemic X, a completely unknown virus – we know a lot about coronaviruses – but something we’ve never seen and have no scientific experience, it will be a much bigger threat and challenge humanity. . “
As for Covid, there is a possibility to combine the flu vaccine with one against the virus, but “it will take some time to put this together,” he said.
For now, he thinks the UK is ready to deliver booster vaccines this fall to deal with alarming variants such as those initially detected in South Africa and Brazil.
“The unknowns are whether variants can wander once everyone has been vaccinated,” he said. “We really don’t know if this will be a minor problem or a huge problem.
“It makes sense to have some kind of booster ready to use.
“The other thing we have no idea about is the duration of protection these vaccines will have – 12 months or 24 months? We collect this data in real time.
“If protection is short-term, we should have our vaccines available at least to be boosted this winter.
“Now, we prepare them and they don’t need to be needed.”
He said it is not yet known whether the entire population needs to be vaccinated again, or whether doses will only be needed for the elderly and the most vulnerable.
“I think we don’t know right now,” he said. “The reason we don’t know is that some of these variants may also not be preserved at an antibody-based level, but we will also have a much broader T-cell immunity and variants will be less likely to surpass that.
“One of the possibilities is that this backup, this T cell immunity, could prevent you from getting really seriously ill and going to the hospital.
“If so, then you might not need to vaccinate the entire population, but this is one of the tough decisions because we don’t know if it’s a problem until there is a problem.”
More data are needed on how well existing vaccines work against variants, but “the main thing right now is that we need to vaccinate everyone so that variants don’t become an issue,” says Prof Shattock.
He added: “I think if we get everyone vaccinated, this will be a less alarming scenario.
“The real challenge would be that if we suddenly said ‘everything is fine’ and we see the variants rise tremendously.
“So we are now in a period where we have to get things done so that the variant story isn’t a big deal.”