GENEVA, SWITZERLAND (AFP) – Two years from now, as the now Omicron-driven COVID crisis rages, there is still hope that the pandemic could begin to disappear in 2022 – although experts say gaping fax inequalities need to be addressed.
It may seem like a distant reality, as countries impose new restrictions to tackle the rapidly spreading new variant and growing cases and put in a depressing sense of déjà vu.
“We are facing another very harsh winter,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week.
But health experts say we are now much better equipped than a year ago to tame the pandemic, with ballooning supplies of safe and largely effective vaccines and new treatments available.
“We have the tool that can bring [the pandemic] on their knees, “Maria Van Kerkhove, the top WHO expert on the Covid crisis, told reporters this month.
“We have the power to end it in 2022,” she stressed.
But, they added, those tools need to be used properly.
One year after the first vaccines came on the market, around 8.5 billion doses have been administered worldwide.
And the world is on track to produce about 24 billion doses in June – more than enough for everyone on the planet.
But strikingly unequal access to vaccine has meant that so many rich nations are sending extra doses to the already vaccinated, vulnerable people and health workers in many poorer nations still waiting for a first shot.
About 67 percent of people in high-income countries have had at least one dose of vaccine, but not even 10% in low-income countries, UN numbers show.
That imbalance, which the WHO has marked as a moral disgrace, risks deepening further, as many countries are in a hurry to roll out extra doses in response to Omicron.
Early data indicate that the heavily mutated variant, which has created a lightning strike around the world since it was first discovered in southern Africa last month, is more resistant to vaccines than previous strains.
While boosters seem to be pushing back levels of protection, the WHO is striving to end the pandemic, the priority should remain to get first doses for vulnerable people everywhere.
Allowing COVID to spread unabated in some places dramatically increases the chance that new, more dangerous variants will emerge, experts warn. That even if rich countries roll third shots, the world is not safe until everyone has a certain degree of immunity.
“No country can stimulate its way out of the pandemic,” Tedros said last week. “Blanket booster programs are likely to prolong the pandemic, rather than end it.”
The emergence of Omicron is proof of that, WHO chief of staff Michael Ryan told AFP. “The virus has taken the opportunity to evolve.”
Gautam Menon, a physics and biology professor at Ashoka University in India, agreed that it was in the best interest of rich countries to ensure that poorer nations also get jabs.
“It would be myopic to assume that they simply got rid of the problem by vaccinating themselves.”
‘Part of the furniture’
Ryan suggested that increased vaccination would bring us to a point where COVID “enters a pattern that is less disruptive.”
But he warns that if the world fails to address the imbalance in vaccine access, the worst may yet lie ahead.
One nightmare scenario predicts the COVID pandemic left out of control amid a steady barrage of new variants, even if a separate tribe generates a parallel pandemic.
Confusion and disinformation would erode confidence in authorities and science as health systems collapse and political unrest ensues.
This is one of several “plausible” scenarios, according to Ryan. “The double pandemic is of particular concern because we have one virus that is now causing a pandemic, and many others have set up.”
But better global vaccination coverage could mean that COVID – while not likely to disappear completely – will become a largely controlled endemic disease, with milder seasonal outbreaks that we will learn to live with, like the flu, experts say.
It will in principle “become part of the furniture,” Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Irvine, told AFP.
But we are not there yet.
Experts warn against over-optimism about early indications that Omicron causes less serious illness than previous strains, pointing out that it is spreading so fast that it can still overwhelm health systems.
“If you have so many, many infections, even if it’s less severe … [hospitals] will be very stressed, “top American infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told NBC News last week.
That’s a depressing prospect two years after the virus first appeared in China.
The scenes of intubated patients in overcrowded hospitals and long lines of people scrambling to find oxygen for loved ones have never stopped. Images of improvised funerals burning over a Delta-hit India have embodied the human cost of the pandemic.
Officially, nearly 5.5 million people worldwide have died, although the actual toll is likely to be several times higher.
Vaccination of vaccines can increase that toll.
In the United States, which remains the most hit country with more than 800,000 dead, the constant stream of short-term obituaries on the FacesOfCovid Twitter account includes many who have not had the shot.
“Amanda, a 36-year-old math teacher in Kentucky. Chris, a 34-year-old high school football coach in Kansas. Cherie, a 40-year-old 7th grade reading teacher in Illinois. All had an impact on their communities. , “read a recent post.
“All love deeply. All not vaccination.”