The story so far: “We are not there yet, but the end is in sight.” At a press conference on September 14, World Health Organization (WHO) director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Last week, the number of weekly reported deaths from COVID-19 was the lowest since March 2020. We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic.” The COVID-19 pandemic struck nearly three years ago, in December 2019, in Wuhan, China. But the WHO chief also warned that if the world does not seize the opportunity now, there will be more risks ahead.
What are the numbers now?
As per the ourworldindata COVID-19 dashboard, as of September 16, a total of 4,53,481 new cases had been recorded across the world. On the same day, the cumulative count of cases was 611.33 million. In contrast, the seven day average of new cases hit a peak on January 24, 2022 at 3.44 million cases per day.
Does this mean the world can let down its guard?
Not yet, according to Dr. Tedros, who, on the contrary, calls for greater energy, a last-mile spurt. “A marathon runner does not stop when the finish line comes into view. She runs harder, with all the energy she has left. So must we,” he said during his address.
“We can see the finish line. We’re in a winning position. But now is the worst time to stop running. Now is the time to run harder and make sure we cross the line and reap the rewards of all our hard work. If we don’t take this opportunity now, we run the risk of more variants, more deaths, more disruption, and more uncertainty,” Dr. Tedros further said. He added that the WHO is releasing six policy briefs outlining the key actions that all governments must take to finish the race.
The briefs are a summary, based on the evidence and experience of the last 32 months, of what works best to save lives, protect health systems, and avoid social and economic disruption. The briefs are an urgent call for governments to take a hard look at their policies, and strengthen them for COVID-19 and future pathogens with pandemic potential, Dr. Tedros insisted.
What should be the priority areas?
The WHO chief urged nations to invest in vaccinating 100% of the most at-risk groups, including health workers and older people, indicating that these groups are the highest priority to achieving 70% vaccine coverage. He added that it was important for countries to keep testing and sequencing for SARS-CoV-2 besides integrating testing and surveillance with similar measures for other respiratory diseases.
Dr. Tedros made a strong case for putting in place a system in order to integrate care for COVID-19 into primary health, and said patients should continue to receive the care that is right for them. While the numbers are dropping globally, it is better to plan for surges of cases, ensuring at the same time that one is always prepared to handle emergency or pandemic situations with the necessary supplies, equipment and health workers.
He also called for broad-based strategies for infection prevention and control precautions to protect health workers and non-COVID patients in health facilities.
The six policy briefs of the WHO set out guidelines for clinical management of COVID-19; managing infection prevention and control measures for COVID-19 in health care facilities; reaching COVID-19 vaccination targets; COVID-19 infodemic management; and building trust through risk communication and community engagement.
In an article in Nature early this year, Aris Katzourakis, a professor who studies viral evolution and genomics at the University of Oxford, argued that rosy assumptions would endanger public health and that policy makers must act now to shape the future, referring to a COVID-19 context. “The best way to prevent more, more-dangerous or more-transmissible variants from emerging is to stop unconstrained spread, and that requires many integrated public-health interventions, including, crucially, vaccine equity.”
What about research?
In an editorial, The Lancet Infectious Diseases acknowledged that it was good news indeed that the link between cases and deaths had weakened, even if it wasn’t broken, at least in highly vaccinated countries. The vast research effort that has gone into COVID-19 over the past two years has given the world tools to turn a pandemic disease into a manageable, endemic one, the Lancet paper pointed out. “Better vaccines and treatments will be required to maintain this success, and large parts of the world’s population still do not have access to vaccines. However, research organisations, funding bodies, and industry should now lead a compensatory effort that, applying lessons learned from combatting COVID-19, redirects research towards the control of infectious diseases (and, indeed, non-communicable diseases) that take a toll of human life year in and year out.”