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Professor Luke O'Neill predicts 2022 will be the year Ireland wins the Covid-19 battle

Dublin Live logo Dublin Live 01/01/2022 Larissa Nolan
© Thomson Reuters

Professor Luke O’Neill has predicted 2022 will be the year we win the fight against Covid, saying: “By Paddy’s Day, the virus will have gone away almost from Ireland.”

The immunologist said we will be able to return to normal life in the next 12 months with the first green shoots appearing in spring.

He added: “The ultimate mission of medicine must be to get us back to the way things were. To get back to living full lives.”

While things look bleak now – with record case numbers and restrictions back in place – we can be optimistic about the year ahead.

Prof O’Neill said: “By the time we get to March and April, it will be a different story entirely – watch.”

Widespread antigen testing, vaccine boosters and the arrival of new, effective medications for the virus all point to the defeat of the virus as major disruption to our lives.

He added: “We will be able to live with it, because of all these strategies.”

That means no more masks, scrapping of social distancing and an end to the Covid pass system for hospitality. Annual jabs for the elderly and vulnerable will ensure protection.

Prof O’Neill said: “Because this is a seasonal virus, once we come into the spring, the counts will start to fall and the boosters will have worked.

“New anti-viral treatments will be approved in February and that will be a huge weapon.

“We know a lot about this virus now – for heaven’s sake, it’s been almost two years.

“We have a heavily-vaccinated population, which is brilliant, with a strong booster to sustain protection.

“When you put it all together, by the time we get to St Patrick’s Day, the virus will have gone away almost from Ireland. It will seem to be in the background.”

According to O’Neill – Professor at Trinity College’s School of Immunology – the best news of 2022 is anti-viral drug Paxlovid, which is a game-changer.

He revealed: “They released the data in December and it’s great. It decreases the risk of hospitalisation in the over 65s by 94%.

“Let’s say in February or March, you get infected. There will still be infections, because the virus isn’t going to go away – we’re just going to know how to manage it.

“So you feel a little rough and you get a test – an antigen test will suffice, probably – and you take an anti-viral and that will kill the virus. It gives about 80 to 90% protection across the board. So we have a tablet now as well as a vaccine – science has delivered both things. The anti-viral will keep things under control.”

He said there’s no point in worrying about Omicron or another variant emerging because the vaccines seem to be working against the variants in stopping severe disease and death.

Prof O’Neill added: “Remember we were saying for months that there could be a variant, and then Omicron came along. We have the usual fears of a dreaded variant.

“Could there be another one? It’s hard to predict, but I wouldn’t worry about it. You could go mad with worry about most things in life. We began boosting against the Delta variant and it works against Omicron, so it should work against other variants.”

He believes the issue of waning immunity is over-stated. Prof O’Neill added: “We’ve got the best vaccines ever invented. All waning means is you get more moderate disease. There was no waning in terms of protection against death. They were less effective against getting infected and moderate illness – and some of those moderates can end up in hospital.

“The sensible thing was to give the third shot. This is not unusual – there are about seven vaccines that require three shots. It’s a new disease and we learned as we went along. It ends up being a three-shot vaccine.

“The booster will almost certainly give you a year’s protection.”

Scientists are currently working on vaccines that will stop transmission of the virus and ones that are Omicron-spike specific.

Prof O’Neill revealed: “We’d love it to stop transmission. That’s the holy grail of vaccines, but in fact very few do that.

“Most vaccines are to stop severe disease, but a bit of the virus might still get in and your immune system kills it, but while it’s growing in your body you could possibly spread it.

“They’re making ones that will stop transmission. They’ve got new technology and approaches that will stop it. It takes time, but I have no doubt, it will come.”

New vaccines – nasal sprays, tablet form and patches – will mean they will be easier and cheaper to administer, store and transport. Will all this mean we can go back to living normal lives? He reckoned: “The mission has to be to get us back to the way we were. The purpose of medicine is to allow us to lead full lives – that’s what medicine is all about.

“If you’re sick, you go to your doctor to get back to a full life and hopefully there’s a medicine to treat you or a procedure to help you.

“What does a full life mean? Going about your business as before. Not wearing masks, not running away from one another. No more vaccine passes for hospitality.

“All these things are medieval approaches and we can do better in 21st century medicine. I can see passes being needed for air travel for a good while yet. It’s a bit like 9/11. We’re still getting checked at airports due to the aftermath of that. We will carry this wound for a while.

“We may see people wearing masks in winter, but it will be voluntary, not mandatory.”

He reckons the trauma the world has been through since early 2020 may result in major advances in healthcare.

Prof O’Neill added: “They’ve been working on vaccines for years and Covid has ramped up the effort.

“There’s a war going on and they’ve been galvanised to develop them more quickly. Other diseases may benefit – we may well see a vaccine for HIV and malaria in the coming years.”

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