The writer is a scientific commentator
Saturday marks exactly two years I first wrote about unexplained viral pneumonia that has affected 59 people in a Chinese city I have never heard of. The apparent connection to the live animal market, which echoes the origins of Sars-1, gave me a vague sense of foreboding, but I had no idea what was coming. World Health Organization has since recorded 300 million infected and 5.46 million dead.
Two years later, the start of 2022 exudes past winters: hospitals in the UK are full of Covid-19 patients; coronavirus briefings, in which advisers Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty play Cassandra with a stone face in Boris Johnson’s Panglos, are returning to British screens; reopening schools amid a huge expansion is just as difficult this year as it was last January.
Yet this is 2022, not 2020 or 2021. Vaccines and antiviral drugs have changed the game of the pandemic in high-income countries. Now mostly unvaccinated occupy intensive care beds. Science delivered what was required of it.
In addition, however, many lessons remain unlearned. The first is that vaccines alone, while protecting against serious illness and death, will not end a pandemic. They reduce transmission but do not stop it. In addition, much of our interconnected world remains unvaccinated. Both factors allow for continuous spread, which risks creating variants, such as Omicron, that can evade immunity.
This has long been a compelling argument for both vaccinating the world and controlling transmission – but the first is still a distant prospect. Less than 4 percent of adults in Nigeria, the most populous African nation, are fully immunized. The IMF warned in October that a ‘big split in vaccination’ could cost the global economy $ 5.3 billion over the next five years.
In terms of transmission, we know that the spread of this airborne virus can be slowed by measures such as masks, ventilation, remote operation, testing and monitoring, isolation, quarantine – and physical distancing where necessary. This approach to vaccines plus is clearly not a ‘lock’, but a way to prevent it.
This has not stopped some countries, such as England, from going their chaotic path. Johnson’s reluctance to impose measures against the hypertransmitter Omicron, despite expert advice, has left the NHS overwhelmed. Omicron could be less serious than Delta, but patients still need beds and staff. Hospitals, affected by record levels of Covid-related staff absences, are suspending routine services and declaring critical incidents; military medics are being recruited.
Such are the daily numbers of those infected – 180,000 new cases on Thursday – that tests are now nearing completion and isolation periods have been shortened to avoid a shortage of critical infrastructure staff. Insufficient testing means losing sight of the virus. Countries with uncontrolled proliferation run the risk of storing uncertain future health burdens, including the long Covid, nurturing new variants, and putting them on the red list of restricted areas. Even a mass infection does not protect against future waves of disease. Clearly, the only viable way to learn to live with Covid-19, even the milder form, is to live with a lot less of it.
Still, countries like the UK and the US they still stick to bribes that health and wealth are a zero-sum game. In fact, by keeping expansion at a low level, countries like South Korea and Taiwan have largely prevented long-term isolation measures, minimized deaths and diseases, and made economic progress. In South Korea, with a population of 52 million, less than 6,000 people have died. Britain, by contrast, lost 150,000 lives in the pandemic; in the U.S. the number exceeds 675,000 deaths since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. I did not expect to see such high levels of avoidable suffering normalized in rich economies. Better performance requires political leadership, including reliable health messages and a willingness to act early. Perfect data is the enemy of a good pandemic policy.
Perhaps the last, somewhat obvious lesson took me a long time to learn: that a pandemic is not shaped by the virus itself but by our collective response to it. We have all come to this epidemic burdened by our past hopes, beliefs, prejudices and fears. I never expected that, faced with the worst pandemic in a century, so many of my fellow citizens would claim that Covid-19 is a hoax, reject safe and effective vaccines, spread conspiracy theories, and make enemies of scientists, doctors, and nurses.
It was that Trust in the vaccine a project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that encouraged me to deal with those who think differently rather than condemn them. So I learned that for one thoughtful young adult of my acquaintance, rejecting Covid’s sting was an act of political rebellion.
For some, refusing vaccines has nothing to do with distrust of science and everything has to do with preserving personal ability in a crisis that has left many helpless. I would once sympathize with Emmanuel Macron, deciding “Fuck offUnvaccinated in response to record levels of infection. Now, after waiting in line for my third dose of gratitude among those who came forward for their first, I wonder if empathy could help end the pandemic sooner.