3.Is it true that common respiratory viruses are circulating at higher rates now, compared to pre-Covid years?
Across many countries that abolished all Covid mitigations in 2022, high rates of child hospitalisations are being reported. This has been happening not just in the UK but in many different countries, including in Germany). Anecdotally, many people, especially parents, have been reporting a run of infections in their families worse than anything they have experienced before. Then, in December 2022, hospitals across the UK and other countries became overwhelmed by a simultaneous surge in Covid and flu. Flu rates, including hospitalisations, were higher than during the two years preceding Covid, but still slightly below the peak in 2017/18.
Public Health Scotland and equivalent English data do not suggest that other respiratory viruses have been circulating at unusually high rates.
So why are so many reporting having been ill with respiratory symptoms again and again in recent months? So-called ‘anecdotal evidence’ represents people’s lived experience, even if it has not been statistically evaluated. It should guide scientists, not be ignored by them.
There is no community testing for any viruses now, and there are no over-the-counter rapid tests for viruses other than Covid. In theory, it is possible that hospital test results (which include testing for common cold viruses for research purposes) do not reflect the spread of different viruses circulating in communities. However, there are two other, more likely reasons:
- Undiagnosed Covid infections, with false negative lateral flow tests, especially if people only swab their noses
- Suppression of immunity to other viruses by previous Covid infections (see Question 8)