It could be four to five years before the Covid-19 pandemic is under control, a senior global health official has said.
Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) chief scientist, told the FT’s Global Boardroom digital conference: “I would say in a four to five-year timeframe, we could be looking at controlling this.”
Influential factors include whether the virus matures, the containment measures put in place and the development of a vaccine, she told the conference.
She 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, the newspaper reported.
Asked about the comments during the WHO’s tri-weekly briefing from Geneva, Dr Mike Ryan, who heads up 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 measures without appropriate surveillance measures in place adding: “We should not be waiting to see if opening of lockdowns have worked counting the bodies in the morgue.”
He said: “We have a new virus entering the human population for the first time, and therefore it is very hard to predict when we will prevail over it.
“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.
“And 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’?
“And 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.
“HIV has not gone away, we’ve come to terms with the virus and we have found the therapies and we found the prevention methods, and people don’t feel as scared as they did before and we’re offering long healthy life to people with HIV.”
He continued: “I don’t think anyone can predict when or if this disease will disappear.
“We do have one great hope – 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.”
But 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.
“And therefore, science can come up with the vaccine – someone is going to make it and we’ve got to make enough of it so everyone can get a dose of it and we’ve got to be able to deliver that.
“And people have got to want to take that vaccine. Every single one of those steps is fraught with challenges.”
But he added: “It’s a massive opportunity for the world.
“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.”
Let us not go back to a situation where we don’t know what’s happening until our hospitals are overflowing
Meanwhile, on countries reopening after lockdowns, Dr Ryan warned that surveillance systems must be in place or it could be “days or weeks” before officials know the virus is “accelerating” again.
“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.”
He went on: “If the health system gets time to recover, then it can cope with another rise in cases, and the health system can probably do that a few times. I’m not sure how many times the economic system can do that.”
Dr Ryan added: “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.”