GENEVA – The world could see the Covid pandemic transition to an endemic disease other people live with next year unless the blatant inequality in access to vaccines prolongs it and worse varieties emerge.
Even as countries scramble to address a new worrying variant of the virus and Europe battles a winter resurgence, health experts say the pandemic can be tamed in the next year.
All the know-how and tools required to get the virus under control are in place, and stocks of safe and effective vaccines and new treatments are growing ever larger.
However, it remains unclear whether we will make the tough decisions necessary or allow the pandemic to rage further, possibly paving the way to a much worse situation.
“The course of this pandemic is in our hands,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s top expert on the Covid crisis, recently told reporters.
Can we “achieve a state of control of the transmission in 2022? Absolutely, ”she said. “We could have done that, but we didn’t.”
A year after the first vaccines were launched, more than 7.5 billion doses were administered worldwide.
And the world is well on the way to producing around 24 billion cans by next June – more than enough for everyone on earth.
But a serious shortage of vaccines in poorer countries and the reluctance of some to get vaccinations where they are available have left nations vulnerable as new, more transmissible variants like Delta have sparked wave after wave of infections.
And so the scenes of intubated patients in overcrowded hospitals and long lines of people struggling to find oxygen for their loved ones continue.
Images of improvised pyre burning in a delta-hit India have embodied the human cost of the pandemic.
Officially, more than 5.1 million people died worldwide, although the real number is likely two to three times that number, according to WHO data.
In the United States, which remains the hardest hit country with nearly 800,000 deaths, the constant stream of brief obituaries on the FacesOfCovid Twitter account includes many who didn’t have a jab.
“Amanda, a 36-year-old math teacher in Kentucky. Chris, a 34-year-old Kansas high school football coach. Cherie, a 40-year-old 7th grade reading teacher in Illinois. All of them had an impact on their communities. Loved all deeply. All unvaccinated, ”reads a recently published article.
‘Part of the furniture’
Two years after the virus first surfaced in China, countries are still vacillating between opening up and reintroducing restrictions.
Anti-Vax protests rock a number of countries in Europe, once again the epicenter of the pandemic, amid new lockdowns and impending vaccination requirements.
Despite such scenes, many experts assume that the pandemic phase will soon be over.
Covid is not going to go away entirely, but rather becoming a largely controlled endemic disease that we will learn to live with, like the flu, they say.
It will basically “become part of the furniture,” Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Irvine, told AFP.
Leading US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci also said that increased vaccination should soon get us to a point where Covid could “occasionally be up and down in the background, but it won’t dominate us as it does it.” now does ”.
But the blatant inequality in access to vaccines remains a daunting challenge.
About 65 percent of people in high-income countries have received at least one dose of vaccine, but just over 7 percent in low-income countries, UN figures show.
The WHO branded the imbalance as moral outrage and urged wealthy countries not to give the fully vaccinated a booster until the most vulnerable everywhere had their first vaccinations – but to no avail.
Health experts emphasize that an unchecked spread of Covid in some places dramatically increases the chances that new, more dangerous variants will emerge and the whole world will be endangered.
The appearance of Omicron, a new variant of Covid first discovered in southern Africa, has brought such fears even more into focus.
The WHO has warned that it poses a “very high” risk worldwide, although it remains unclear whether it is more contagious, dangerous, or better at bypassing vaccination protection than previous variants.
“Nobody is safe until everyone is safe,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has repeated since the beginning of the pandemic.
Gautam Menon, a physics and biology professor at Ashoka University in India, agreed that it was in the best interests of wealthy countries to ensure that poorer nations were also teased.
“It would be short-sighted to assume that vaccination was the only way to get rid of the problem,” he said.
If the world fails to fix the imbalance, experts warn that the worst may still lie ahead.
A nightmare scenario portrayed by the WHO envisions the Covid pandemic spiraling out of control amid a constant flurry of new, more dangerous variants, even if a separate Zika-like mosquito-borne virus sets off a parallel pandemic.
Confusion, disinformation and migration crises from people fleeing mosquito-prone areas would weaken trust in authorities and science as health systems collapse and political unrest ensues.
This is one of several “plausible” scenarios, according to WHO Emergency Director Michael Ryan.
“The double pandemic is of particular concern because now we have a virus that is causing a pandemic and many others are in line.”
WHO urges countries to commit to a pandemic treaty to prepare for and prevent future crises.
“This is certainly not the last dangerous pathogenic virus we will see,” said Jamie Metzl, a futurologist in technology and healthcare.
Regardless of how the Covid situation develops, “it is clear that we can never have a complete demobilization”.
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