Without an effective vaccine it could be four to five years before Covid-19 is safely under control It could be four to five years before the coronavirus pandemic is under control, a senior official from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.
Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan said key factors in defeating Covid-19 in the long-term include whether the virus matures, the containment measures put in place and, crucially, the development of a vaccine.
The UK is at the forefront of international efforts to develop such treatment – though Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned this week one may never be found.
Ms Swaminathan said that a vaccine ‘seems for now the best way out’ but there were ‘lots of ifs and buts’ about its efficacy and safety, as well as its production and equitable distribution.
‘I would say in a four to five-year timeframe, we could be looking at controlling this’ she told the Financial Times Global Boardroom digital conference.
Asked about the comments during the WHO’s tri-weekly briefing from Geneva, Dr Mike Ryan, head of the organisation’s health emergencies programme, said no-one could predict when the disease would disappear.
But he also issued a warning about easing lockdown without appropriate test track and trace measures in place, adding: ‘We should not be waiting to see if opening of lockdowns have worked counting the bodies in the morgue.’
There are globally more than 4.3 million confirmed coronavirus cases, with the death toll now approaching 300,000. Dr Ryan said that is actually a ‘relatively low’ number when it comes to society building some form of collective immunity.
He said: ‘What is clear, and I think maybe what Soumya may have been alluding to, is that the current number of people in our population who’ve been infected is actually relatively low.
‘If you’re a scientist, and you project forward in the absence of a vaccine, and you try and calculate ‘how long is it going to take for enough people to be infected so that this disease settles into an endemic trace’? It is important to put this on the table – this virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities. And this virus may never go away.’
Dr Ryan said an effective vaccine was the ‘one great hope’ in beating Covid-19 swiftly, but that this came with many challenges in terms of manufacturing and distributing it on a global scale.
‘If we do find a highly effective vaccine that we can distribute to everyone who needs it in the world, we may have a shot at eliminating this virus. ‘But that vaccine will have to be highly effective, it will have to be made available to everyone, and we will have to use it’ he said.
Several countries have begun lifting lockdown as the global economy takes a huge hit from coronavirus Citing unvaccinated populations for diseases like measles, he went on: ‘Forgive me if I’m cynical. But we have some perfectly effective vaccines on this planet that we have not used effectively for diseases we could eliminate and eradicate and we haven’t done.
‘We’ve lacked the will, we have lacked the determination to invest in health systems to deliver that’.
The WHO chief said discovering a coronavirus vaccine presents ‘a massive opportunity for the world’ to address these global health inequalities. He added: ‘The idea that a new disease could emerge, cause a pandemic, and we could – with a massive moonshot – find a vaccine and give that to everyone who needs it and stop this disease in its tracks will turn, maybe what has been a tragic pandemic, into a beacon of hope for the future of our planet and the way we care for our citizens’.
Scientists around the world are racing to discover effective coronavirus treatments as lockdown threatens a worse global recession than the Financial Crash of 2008 and even The Great Depression.
Warning of the potential deadly consequences of the UK’s approach, Dr Ryan said governments considering lifting lockdown should have effective surveillance in place to monitor the disease transmission.
He said: ‘If that virus transmission accelerates and you don’t have the systems to detect it, it will be days or weeks before you know something has gone wrong. And by the time that happens, you’re back into a situation where your only response is another lockdown.
‘And I think this is what we all fear – a vicious cycle of public health disaster, followed by an economic disaster, followed by public health disaster, followed by economic disaster.
‘We should not be waiting to see if opening of lockdowns has worked by counting the cases in the ICU (intensive care units), or counting the bodies in the morgue, that is not the way to know something has gone wrong.
‘The way to know that the disease is coming back is to have community-based surveillance, to be testing, and to know the problem is coming back, and then be able to adjust your public health measures accordingly.
‘Let us not go back to a situation where we don’t know what’s happening until our hospitals are overflowing. That is not a good way to do business.’