COVID-19 has had a devastating impact around the globe, but the WHO on Monday warned that worse pandemics could lie ahead, urging the world to get “serious” about preparedness.
“This is a wakeup call,” WHO Health Emergencies Program executive director Michael Ryan told reporters at a briefing marking a year since the UN agency first learned of a new virus spreading in China, as well as the agency’s final briefing for the year.
Since then, COVID-19 has killed nearly 1.8 million people around the world, out of more than 80 million reported infections.
Photo: Reuters / Christopher Black / WHO
“This pandemic has been very severe,” Ryan said. “It has spread around the world extremely quickly and it has affected every corner of this planet, but this is not necessarily the big one.”
While the virus is “very transmissible, and it kills people ... its current case fatality [rate] is reasonably low in comparison to other emerging diseases,” he said. “We need to get ready for something that may even be more severe in the future.”
“The likely scenario is the virus will become another endemic virus that will remain somewhat of a threat, but a very low-level threat in the context of an effective global vaccination program,” he said.
However, “the existence of a vaccine, even at high efficacy, is no guarantee of eliminating or eradicating an infectious disease. That is a very high bar for us to be able to get over,” he said.
WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward said that while the world had made huge scientific progress to address the current crisis, including developing vaccines at record speed, it was far from prepared to ward off future pandemics.
“We are into second and third waves of this virus and we are still not prepared to deal with and manage those,” he told the briefing. “So while we are better prepared ... we are not fully prepared for this one, let alone the next one.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic had helped the world become more prepared to tackle future threats and hailed how scientists around the world were working closely together to help bring the pandemic to an end.
He specifically mentioned the two new strains of the virus that have emerged in the UK and South Africa, which appear to be more infectious that previous strains.
“Only if countries are looking and testing effectively will you be able to pick up variants and adjust strategies to cope,” he said. “We must ensure that countries are not punished for transparently sharing new scientific findings.”
David Heymann, an epidemiologist with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and chair of the WHO’s strategic and technical advisory group for infectious hazards, said that “it appears the destiny of SARS-CoV-2 is to become endemic ... and continue to mutate as it reproduces in human cells, especially in areas of more intense admission.”
Additional reporting by the Guardian
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