Some countries are now attempting to “live with Covid” two years after the epidemic officially began, but scientists warn that new varieties and unequal vaccination rates endanger any long-awaited return to normalcy.
In late January, US global health researcher Christopher Murray stated in The Lancet medical journal, “Covid-19 will continue, but the end of the epidemic is imminent,” expressing the hopes of many national health agencies around the world. Countries like the United Kingdom and Denmark abolished all legal Covid restrictions in the weeks leading up to the two-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring a pandemic in March 2020. Many states in the United States have similarly reduced mask and other regulations.
As the global mortality toll declines after the more transmissible but less severe Omicron version swept the globe, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the change signaled the beginning of learning “to live with Covid.”
According to the WHO, the pandemic’s “acute phase” might be over by the middle of this year if about 70% of the world is vaccinated.
Is it possible to go from pandemic to endemic?
Spain has been one of the countries advocating for Covid to be treated as having entered a “endemic” phase, which means it has lesser seasonal outbreaks that humans can live with, such as the flu.
However, some experts are concerned that governments may use the relatively ambiguous term to justify the removal of life-saving treatments. “The word ‘endemic’ has become one of the most abused of the pandemic,” stated University of Oxford evolutionary virologist Aris Katzourakis.
“A disease can be endemic and both ubiquitous and dangerous,” he wrote last week in Nature, noting that malaria would kill more than 600,000 people in 2020, while tuberculosis will kill 1.5 million. More than pandemic and endemic, there are other choices. SAGE, the British government’s scientific advisory council, has outlined four possible future scenarios.
There will be fewer regional or seasonal outbreaks in the “realistic best-case” scenario, as increased Covid quantities lead to fewer flu infections. In the worst-case scenario, new unpredictable varieties mutate into devastating virus waves, necessitating the reinstatement of severe controls.
Different results are dependent on two main uncertainties: the potential appearance of novel variations and the efficacy of vaccinations to provide long-term protection against the disease.
The prospect of a new variant
Omicron has functioned as both a warning and a test when it comes to immunizations. Many epidemiologists believe that allowing Covid to spread unchecked increases the risk of it evolving into new strains. There’s also no guarantee that future variations will be less lethal.
“There is a widespread, optimistic belief that viruses evolve over time to become less harmful,” Katzourakis added.
“This is not the case: there is no predetermined evolutionary conclusion for a virus to become more benign,” he added, noting that the Delta variety was deadlier than the original Wuhan strain. Omicron is also immune to some of the vaccinations now available.
However, they are quite helpful in preventing serious sickness and death, especially third booster doses, which have been widely distributed over the world.
Vaccines to the rescue?
Fourth doses have begun to be administered in countries like as Israel and Sweden, but experts warn that delivering an unlimited number of booster shots is a short-sighted policy. A fourth dose was similarly found to be less efficient against Omicron in an Israeli experiment published in January.
Pharma behemoths have raced to produce an Omicron-specific vaccination, but none appears to be on the horizon.
Several recent preliminary results of animal experiments that were not peer reviewed suggest that the targeted vaccines are no more effective than their predecessors against Omicron.
However, there may be another option: widening rather than reducing the vaccine’s coverage. Three researchers, including Anthony Fauci, the principal medical adviser to US President Joe Biden, have urged for a “universal coronavirus vaccine” that would guard against future coronaviruses that could spread from animals and cause another pandemic.
The researchers wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine over the weekend, “We must now prioritize the development of widely protective vaccinations.” However, such a vaccination confronts significant challenges, and the first human studies have only recently begun.
Meanwhile, the WHO emphasizes that the best method to stop the pandemic’s acute phase is for wealthier countries to share their dosages rather than repopulating their populations. According to the WHO, only 13% of Africans were fully vaccinated as of late last month, far short of the 70% target set for mid-year.
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