Is a covid and flu “twindemic” on the horizon?
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I’m back in London from last week’s trip through the Swiss Alps to meet millionaires who want a life of luxury .. Alas, I brought more suspect supplements home with my–I’ve been ill for the past few days with a virus. I can’t blame my fellow conference attendees for my illness. A rapid antigen test was negative so it doesn’t appear to be covid. I took a total of 13 trains to make it there and back, and heard more than a few coughs on the journey. When I dropped my daughter off at nursery Monday morning, I was informed that all staff members were sick. It’s the same time of year for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere.
That’s partly why health authorities on both sides of the Atlantic are urging people to get vaccinated–against both the flu and covid-19. Recent warnings have been made about a possible flu-like epidemic. Are we to be concerned?
A little bit. There are a few reasons. This year, the flu virus is likely to be particularly dangerous to people living in the Northern Hemisphere. The rates have been extremely low for the past two years.
The US typically sees tens of millions of flu cases every year, as estimated by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is based on the number of flu-related hospitalizations. In the 2018-2019 flu season, there were an estimated 29 million symptomatic cases, followed by 36 million the following year.
But in the flu season of 2020-2021, US hospitalizations were so low that the CDC wasn’t able to estimate the total number of cases at all. Flu activity was described by the organization as being “the lowest it has been since current reporting began in 1997.” Some epidemiologists worry that because we haven’t been exposed to the virus as much, we may have lost some immunity against it.
The downturn in cases had a lot to do with the covid-19 pandemic. All of the measures taken to stop the spread SARS-CoV-2 virus had a knock-on effect on reducing the spread of other respiratory viruses such as flu.
The problem is that we’ve now dropped a lot of those measures. Many people are now happy to mix in offices, transport hubs and other places where infections can easily spread. Many countries have reopened their borders to international travelers. Some require proof of covid vaccine, but many do not. My covid vaccination certificate was not checked as I traveled through England and France.
Another notable feature of my journey was the distinct lack of face masks. Many countries have dropped official guidelines on masking, even though epidemiologists still recommend wearing masks in public places. In the 13 trains I took, I saw only around 10 people wearing a face covering.
Covid-19 outbreaks haven’t followed the same seasonal patterns as flu. However, as we have seen many times in the past few years, the disease can come back when our defenses are weak. We might be seeing the beginnings of a new wave here in the UK–the number of people testing positive for covid-19 increased by a staggering 42% in the last seven days, according to government figures. If recent trends are any indication, any surge in UK could be followed by a similar surge elsewhere in the US a month later.
The experiences of countries in the Southern Hemisphere provide another cause for concern. Flu season in Australia typically begins in May and peaks around October. According to the Australian government’s disease surveillance network, flu struck early and hard this year. It reached its peak in June. After two years of extremely low flu activity, the outbreak occurred. This is believed to have reduced immunity. The flu may have been a new experience for many children under two years old.
That’s why the CDC, the WHO, and other health authorities are urging people to get vaccinated. This is a familiar story. It’s a familiar story, but people still die from both diseases. Those who are not vaccinated are at highest risk.
As the weather cools in the Northern Hemisphere, and people increasingly mix indoors, we can expect cases to rise, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, told journalists at a press briefing on Wednesday. It’s not just the UK–several countries in Europe are already seeing increases in covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Another reason to be concerned is the virus’s potential for evolution. The vast majority of cases worldwide are still caused by the omicron variant. But the WHO is monitoring more than 300 omicron subvariants, all of which are considered to be “of concern.” As Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s covid-19 technical lead, said at the same briefing: “We will continue to see waves of infection … because we will be living with this virus.”
Tech Review has been covering covid-19 since the pandemic began. Here are a few recent pieces from the archive:
- Covid-19 hit some much harder than others. We’ve only just begun to examine the racial disparities of long covid, as Elaine Shelly reports in this piece.
- And there’s still a big debate over long covid in children–with groups at loggerheads on the impact, and even the definition, of the illness, as I reported earlier this year.
- In China, a covid pop-up on your phone that requires you to get a PCR test could leave you quarantining for days for no apparent reason, my colleague Zeyi Yang reports.
- Two inhaled covid vaccines were recently approved for covid-19 in India and China, as I covered last month …
- … But the hunt is on for a universal covid vaccine based on nanoparticles, reports Adam Piore.
From around the web
Ever had your mind go blank? Brain scans have shown that our brains can enter a state where it is impossible to tap into our minds. (PNAS)
Doctors are discovering new, ultra-rare blood group systems–and have just described a 44th. (Wired)
Rapid antigen tests for covid-19 have paved the way for other home test kits–covering everything from flu to kidney disease. (Neo.Life)
The US shortage of Adderall–prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy–is biting, with affected people saying their lives have been “turned upside down.” (Vice)
We’re becoming increasingly nearsighted. Myopia will affect half of the world’s population by 2050, partly because we’re spending more time reading indoors. (BBC Future)
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.