It will be four or five years before Covid-19 is under control, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist predicted on Wednesday, in a bleak assessment of the difficulties that lie ahead.
Many factors will determine how long and to what extent the virus remains a threat, including whether it mutates, what containment measures are put in place and whether an effective vaccine is developed, Soumya Swaminathan 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,” she said, adding there was “no crystal ball” and the pandemic could “potentially get worse”.
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, she said. A vaccine could also stop working if the virus changed, she added.
Peter Piot, professor of global health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who was also speaking on the FT panel, agreed that control of the virus depended on the development of an effective vaccine, but said the “elimination” of the disease “is going to require much much more”.
“Only smallpox has been eliminated and eradicated as a human disease,” said Prof Piot, who is himself recovering from the virus. Countries should be thinking in terms of years not months, he said: “We will have to find a way as societies to live with this” and change from lockdowns to more “granular, targeted types of interventions”.
Dr Swaminathan said weighing up the risks and benefits of easing restrictions, and figuring out how to reach a “new normal”, was the biggest challenge facing policymakers.
Not all countries have chosen to impose strict social distancing measures, however: Sweden has been a notable outlier as one of the few European countries that has not imposed a lockdown.
Asked about the country’s more relaxed approach, Paul Franks, professor of epidemiology at Lund University, said what was seen to be successful now might be perceived later as a failure.
Sweden had a much higher fatality rate than its neighbouring Nordic countries, which was “not looking good . . . I wouldn’t say right now it looks like open society approach has worked really well”, he said.
However, as other countries begin to relax their restrictions, their fatality rates might “catch up”, he said.
Prof Franks added the pace at which countries were able to control the virus “depends a great deal on if we’re able to organise ourselves better than we have so far as societies”.
Prof Piot agreed that better organisation was crucial. Inefficient bureaucracies and public sector procurement had hampered many countries’ ability to test for and trace the virus, he said.
He criticised centralised testing systems — an approach adopted by the UK government — and said the public and private sectors must invest more to enable mass screening.
As we move on to the next phase of the pandemic, “testing is essential”, said Prof Piot. There is “no option but to invest more in testing”.
Source: Financial Times