Sense of an ending: Scientists say worst of Covid could be over

Is the worst of Covid over? Yes, say several scientists, perhaps for the first time in more than two years of a pandemic that affected every facet of life in every corner of the globe.

The pandemic will be over but Covid will be here to stay, the scientists said as Covid numbers begin to ebb in several parts of the world, including India. The disease in its current form will still contribute to a steady background of cases, neither increasing sharply nor declining abruptly.

“A dwindling fraction of these cases will be severe enough to lead to death. It is this new normal that we must become accustomed to,” Gautam I Menon, professor, Departments of Physics and Biology, Ashoka University, told PTI.

“The world cannot function in a state of permanent heightened alertness,” Menon, who has been tracking Covid numbers since the beginning of the pandemic, added. More than two years after declaring COVID-19 an international emergency, the World Health Organization (WHO) is now expressing optimism that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is in sight.

“We have spent two-and-a-half years in a long, dark tunnel, and we are just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of that tunnel,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Tedros said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on Thursday.

“But it is still a long way off, and the tunnel is still dark, with many obstacles that could trip us up if we don’t take care,” he added.

Tedros said at a press conference last week that the world has never been in a better position to end the pandemic. “We are not there yet, but the end is in sight,” he said.

“This is certainly an indicator that a major phase of the current pandemic is now ending, although we should be careful how we interpret the word ‘ending’,” Menon cautioned.

Epidemiologist Raman Laxminarayan agreed, saying Covid risk is lower as long as individuals are vaccinated so they should no longer worry about the pandemic as far their health is concerned.

“Due to vaccination and widespread population exposure, the risk of hospitalization and death has come down a lot so in the sense of the public attention moving on, it is only to be expected,” Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CDDEP) in Washington, told PTI.

On September 22, the number of daily reported global deaths stood at 1,395, the lowest since March 2020, while the number of new cases was 4,28,321 (4.2 lakh), the lowest since October 2020, according to the WHO Coronavirus dashboard.

Daily cases peaked in January 2022, with numbers reaching 4,040,309 (40.4 lakh) on January 26. The highest deaths were reported on July 21, 2021, with 20,005 mortality cases reported.

In India, the daily number of cases peaked at 4,14,188 on May 7, 2021, while June 10, 2021 saw highest death numbers of 6,148. On Friday, the country reported 5,383 new cases and 20 deaths due to Covid. Global weekly deaths from the virus have not exceeded 20,000 since mid April, even as case numbers have increased.

Cell biologist Sanjeev Galande, noted that the pandemic is showing signs of ending soon but the coronavirus may remain with us for a much longer time.

“If we look at the trend since the beginning of 2022, overall cases, hospitalisations and deaths in most countries – though not all – are rapidly decreasing,” Galande, dean, School of Natural Sciences, at Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, told PTI .

There is growing evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus will eventually turn seasonal, a characteristic of several other respiratory illnesses, Galande noted.

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of death for those sick enough to be hospitalized has decreased dramatically.

“It was about 15 per cent during the predominance of the Delta variant and has dropped steadily over the last year to less than 3 per cent during the late Omicron phase, which is good news!,” Galande said.

The experts said the worst may be over but it may be quite a while before we declare the end of the pandemic.

The WHO has also cautioned that coronavirus still poses an “acute global emergency” and highlighted that during the first eight months of 2022 more than one million people died from COVID-19.

It also affirmed that countries need to take a hard look at their policies and strengthen them for COVID-19 and future viruses, urging nations to vaccinate 100 per cent of their high-risk groups and keep testing for the virus.

According to Laxminarayan, since testing has moved away from labs to the home, cases numbers being reported may give a false sense that the pandemic is over.

“But the bottom line is that we should get vaccinated and stop worrying,” he added.

Menon said we might well hope that we are emerging from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, provided a more transmissible as well as more virulent variant strain does not appear.

Going forward, he said, the decisions on what steps need to be taken to protect oneself can now be left to the individual and there is no need for further state intervention, especially in a punitive way.

In Laxminarayan’s view, the message for policy makers should be to continue to focus on Covid vaccination while that for the general public must be to not worry as long as they are vaccinated.

“Although the Covid disease is not going to disappear, it is unlikely that we will see a big resurgence in Covid deaths and hospitalisations if we go back to life as normal.

“A new strain that is dangerous could always emerge but we can then take appropriate measures at that time,” the scientist added.

Globally, as of September 22, 2022, there have been 610,866,075 (over 61 crore) confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 6,510,139 (65 lakh) deaths, reported to WHO. As of September 19, 2022, a total of 12,640,866.343 (1,264 crore) vaccine doses have been administered.

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