Pandemic forecast: where are we going now?

Two years later, with the now-fueled Covid crisis raging, hopes that the pandemic may begin to fade in 2022 – although experts say the gaping vaccine inequalities need to be addressed.

It may seem like a distant reality as countries impose new restrictions to address the rapidly spreading new variant and rising cases and a depressing sense of déjà vu sets in.

“We are facing another very harsh winter,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week.

However, health experts say we are much better equipped now than we were a year ago to tame the pandemic as supplies of safe and largely effective vaccines and new treatments continue to expand.

“We have the tools that can bring (the pandemic) to its knees,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s leading expert on the Covid crisis, told reporters this month.

“We have the power to end it in 2022,” she insisted.

But, she added, they must be used properly.

Obvious inequality

One year after the first vaccines were launched, around 8.5 billion doses were administered worldwide.

And the world is well on its way to producing around 24 billion cans by June – more than enough for everyone on the planet.

But blatant inequality of access to vaccines has resulted in many wealthy nations giving extra doses to people already vaccinated, and health workers in many poorer countries are still waiting for an initial vaccination.

About 67 percent of people in high-income countries have received at least one dose of vaccine, but not even 10 percent in low-income countries, UN figures show.

This imbalance, which the WHO has termed moral outrage, risks deepening as many countries rush to introduce additional doses to respond to Omicron.

Early data suggests that the highly mutated variant, which has struck lightning across the globe since it was first discovered in southern Africa last month, is more resistant to vaccines than previous strains.

While boosters seem to increase the level of protection again, the WHO insists on ending the pandemic, the priority must remain to get first doses to people at risk everywhere.

‘Nearsighted’
If Covid can spread unchecked in some places, the chance that new, more dangerous variants will emerge increases dramatically, experts warn.

Even if wealthy countries introduce third shots, the world will not be safe until everyone has some level of immunity.

“No country can accelerate its way out of the pandemic,” Tedros said last week.

“Blanket booster programs will likely prolong the pandemic instead of ending it.”

The appearance of Omicron is evidence of this, WHO emergency chief Michael Ryan told AFP.

“The virus took the opportunity to evolve.”

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.”

‘Part of the furniture’
Ryan suggested that increased vaccination should get us to a point where Covid “adopts a pattern that is less disruptive”.

But he warns that the worst may yet be ahead if the world fails to fix the imbalance in access to vaccines.

A nightmare scenario imagines the Covid pandemic spiraling out of control amid a constant flurry of new variants, even if a separate strain sets off a parallel pandemic.

Confusion and disinformation would wane confidence in government and science as health systems collapse and political unrest ensued.

According to Ryan, this is one of several “plausible” scenarios.

“The double pandemic is of particular concern because now we have a virus that is causing a pandemic and many others are in line.”

However, better global vaccination coverage could mean that Covid – although it is unlikely to go away entirely – becomes a largely controlled endemic disease with milder seasonal outbreaks that we will learn to live with, like the flu, experts say.

It will basically “become part of the furniture,” Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Irvine, told AFP.

Overstrained hospitals
But we’re not there yet.

Experts warn of being overly optimistic about early signs that Omicron is causing less serious illness than previous strains, pointing out that it is spreading so rapidly that it could still overwhelm health systems.

“When you have that many, many infections, even if they are less severe … (hospitals) you get very stressed,” US senior infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci told NBC News last week.

That’s a depressing prospect two years after the virus first emerged in China.

The scenes of intubated patients in crowded hospitals and long lines of people desperate for oxygen for their loved ones never stopped.

Images of improvised pyre burning in a delta-hit India have embodied the human cost of the pandemic.

Officially, nearly 5.5 million people died worldwide, with the real number likely many times higher.

Any hesitation about vaccinations could add to the toll.

In the United States, which remains the hardest hit country with over 800,000 deaths, the constant short obituaries on the FacesOfCovid Twitter account include 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 her communities Illinois, “read a recent post.

“All deeply loved. All unvaccinated.”

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