Time for increased action against COVID-19: WHO Chief Scientist

Sowmya Swaminathan stresses increasing vaccination, testing and sequencing to spot new variants

September 19, 2022 04:39 am | Updated September 21, 2022 04:53 pm IST - Chennai 

World Health Organization’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan. File

World Health Organization’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan. File | Photo Credit: AFP

In light of the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus’ declaration that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is nigh, nations wonder whether they can let their guard down and resume ‘normalcy’ as it existed pre-pandemic. There is a also a certain degree of confusion over retaining health infrastructure created for COVID-19 and what public health measures should remain in place. The WHO’s Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan clarifies on the points Dr. Tedros made in his speech and underlines the importance of not letting up efforts just yet.

“What Dr. Tedros actually said was: ‘We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic. We are not there yet, but the end is in sight. If we don’t take this opportunity now, we run the risk of more variants, more deaths, more disruption, and more uncertainty’. He also made the point that governments must increase efforts now so we can reach the end. Thus, he was actually saying governments must do the opposite of ‘letting down their guard ‘. Now we need to be increasing our guard — particularly increasing vaccination, surveillance testing, genomic sequencing to spot new variants,” Dr. Swaminathan explained.

“We are not approaching a situation where COVID is becoming a seasonal virus. There is high transmission in all parts of the world currently, regardless of season. And as much mentioned above, it is critical that we persist with, and strengthen, the public health prevention methods that we know work,” she further clarified.

Dr. Swaminathan drew attention to the six policy briefs that the WHO released last week to help countries update their policies and strengthen the response to COVID-19. “As the Director General said: ‘These policy 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’.”

The briefs are based on existing WHO recommendations from previously published guidance, and outline the critical elements needed to end the COVID-19 emergency, including vaccinating the highest risk groups, maintaining strong surveillance, testing and sequencing, ensuring early clinical care, the targeted use of public health and social measures, including isolation of cases. They also provide guidance on use of masks, distancing, ventilation and cleaning hands, and enabling communities with clear and open communication, and tackling the ‘infodemic’. “Further, we know how to treat cases now and have drugs to prevent severe disease in the most high risk groups,” she said.

Another critical role that nations have to play is in the area of vaccinations, with respect to COVID-19. ”It is critical that all countries vaccinate 100% of people in high risk groups — that is, healthcare workers, older people, people with underlying conditions. A third dose is needed in these groups to offer maximum protection. We have seen that with waning immunity (approximately four to six months after the last shot), there is a risk of infection or re-infection with new Omicron sub-variants. However, protection against severe disease seems to be robust and longer lasting, so, even if people get infected, they will not land in hospital,” she explained.

As far as repurposing health infrastructure that nations have created to fight COVID-19 goes, Dr. Swaminathan said the question does not arise. In fact, the policy briefs underline the need for sustained financing and a trained, protected and respected workforce to maintain these life-saving actions in the context of competing health and non-health emergencies. Additionally, they recognise the need to strengthen the acute and longer-term response for COVID-19 in relation to other pressing public health issues. She also spoke of the need to pay attention to long COVID. ”We are learning more about the long-term complications of COVID and the need to have clinical infrastructure in place to deal with the cardiac, neurological, metabolic and mental health sequelae of infection,” Dr. Swaminathan said. 

She stressed that research into all aspects of COVID-19 would continue to be a crucial part of the response and must additionally be supported and strengthened. “The virus is continually adapting and staying one step ahead of us. Research into broad spectrum antivirals and pan-coronavirus vaccines is very important. Further, we need to promote coordinated interdisciplinary research into zoonotic diseases that can give rise to the next epidemic or pandemic, and develop countermeasures that are quickly repurposable to new pathogens,” Dr. Swaminathan added.


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