After more than three years, the global Covid emergency has officially ended. However, it still kills at least one person every four minutes and questions about how to deal with the virus remain unanswered, putting people in vulnerable and unvaccinated countries at risk.
An important question is how to manage a virus that has become less of a threat to the majority but remains more dangerous to a fraction of the population. That slice is much bigger than most realize: Covid is still a leading killer, the third biggest in the US last year behind heart disease and cancer. Unlike other common causes of death such as smoking and traffic accidents that have led to safety laws, however, politicians have not pushed for measures to reduce harm, such as mandated vaccinations or masking. in closed areas.
“The general desire of the world is to move beyond the pandemic and put Covid behind us, but we cannot put our heads in the sand,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center at the Veterans Affairs St . Louis Health Care System of Missouri. “Covid still infects and kills many people. We have a way to reduce that burden.”
Even before the World Health Organization MANILA Earlier this month with Covid no longer an emergency, most governments have already relaxed lockdowns and guidelines. After spending heavily in the earlier stages of the pandemic, world leaders have dialed back efforts and are reluctant to pursue containment measures for which the public no longer has much patience.
Meanwhile, the infection that causes at least 20 million deaths worldwide continues to grow, leaving the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions to the fate, unequal access to medicine and little protection from others without face masks or recent vaccinations.
Why No Long-Term Plan?
A global, long-term plan to protect the vulnerable and to keep the recovery at bay has yet to materialize, partly because of how difficult it is to build any consensus around Covid. From the beginning, polarized political discourse overshadowed the official guidelines on masking and vaccination.
Even in developed countries where the vaccine is available in less than a year of the pandemic, many people refuse to take it. The lack of vaccination led to more than 300,00 excessive American deathsor one out of every two from Covid, throughout 2021. Globally, it could save half a million more, studies show.
“We know that the politicization of public health is one of the tragedies of the pandemic,” Al-Aly said. “Political leaders use their answers not only to promote public health but to promote their own narrative and support for themselves.”
Global coordination is also blocked by politics. China’s refusal to allow independent experts unfettered access to a wet market thought to be a crucible for Covid or the Wuhan Institute of Virology has added to diplomatic tension and mistrust. Currently, Chinese representatives are not participating in many global preparedness efforts, said Linfa Wang, a virologist and director of the emerging infectious diseases program at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.
“It hinders academic collaboration, and China/US collaboration is almost zero,” Wang said. “With these two superpowers, if they don’t work together, how can we say the world is ready for the next disease?”
The waning sense of urgency also means that the surge in investment in Covid vaccines and therapeutics has also cooled. While companies include Modern Inc. and Pfizer Inc. Still updating their shots, trying to make it easier to make and save them, many of the hundreds of novel methods that were initially conceived fell by the wayside.
In the US, experts are due to meet in June to determine which strain of the virus vaccines should focus on for the rest of the year. The vaccines will only launch in the fall, with 100 million doses expected in the US according to Moderna’s estimates, much less than in previous years.
Why Is This a Problem?
Long Covid, which is estimated to affect around 10% of infected people, is considered one of the biggest post-pandemic medical challenges. Economic costs are also important.
In the US, prolonged Covid is estimated to cost almost $50 billion a year in lost wages by late 2022. In the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies last year estimated that around one in 10 people with high Covid had to stop working as a result. The number of people with symptoms, including brain fog, shortness of breath and fatigue, is rising even as infections are declining.
It is especially scary for people at risk, who have to go back to work and public places where masks are few and the dangers are invisible. A family wedding can still be a super-spreader event, and a flight can be disastrous.
Epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee is painfully aware of this. Her husband Tom survived a drug-resistant infection with a rare superbug in 2016, but was left with scarred lungs and other medical issues. They understand the potential risk if he contracts Covid, so they are cautious, limiting travel through the pandemic. Both are fully vaccinated and avid masks.
But a recent visit to their son in Canada led to the infection. At the hospital, where Tom is being treated for acute respiratory distress, he is amazed at how little some of the young staff are concerned about contracting Covid because they consider themselves low-risk, even if they can transmit it. of patients.
“It’s not mild for everyone and we know that repeated exposure increases your risk,” said Strathdee, also associate dean of Global Health Sciences at the University of California, San Diego.
While people with active health issues may know to be careful, others will find they are vulnerable after a hospital-acquired infection. Repeated fights can add to the damage, and that applies to everyone, not just those with pre-existing conditions.
What Should We Do?
The silver lining is that the world now has vaccines and better treatments. Tests can detect infections in minutes, and new outbreaks can be detected quickly.
Health experts say vaccination is the best way to protect against it. Only about 16% of Americans got a bivalent booster, according to Pfizer Inc., compared with about 70% who were vaccinated in the first inoculation drive. Increased out-of-pocket costs and vaccine fatigue may cause uptake rates to drop further. In the longer term, the hope is that newer shots or nasal sprays will provide better protection.
There are other improvements that could help, from ventilation and air quality testing to better masks. There should be more investment in surveillance systems so that threats are caught early, experts said.
The US also plans to spend $5 billion on a new project aimed at developing advanced vaccines and treatments for coronaviruses with drug manufacturers. The goal is to make the drugs readily available as the virus mutates, so the targeted strain doesn’t disappear when it hits the market.
“Even if governments are tired, we have to face the reality that the virus is still evolving,” Duke-NUS’s Wang said.