From pandemic to endemic: What will it take to end Covid

Vaccination at Dagoretti Deputy County Commissioner’s Office, Nairobi. February 3, 2022. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020 signalling the end of normalcy as we knew it. This was further sealed on March 11, 2020 when the outbreak was officially declared a pandemic, with over 100,000 cases at the time spread in over 110 countries and territories.

A panic-stricken global civilisation turned to social distancing, curfews and in extreme cases quarantine to cap the spread of the virus. Despite all efforts, the impact of the pandemic was still significant. Infection rates rapidly increased and soon enough a spike in death rates followed, peaking in January 2021 at a seven-day average of approximately 14,500. The pandemic was far more than a healthcare crisis. It also had a far-reaching impact on economic and social welfare, with global trade falling by 5.3 per cent in 2020.

The first Covid-19 vaccine, Oxford/AstraZeneca was authorised for use on December 11, 2020. Hope was reborn. This milestone seemed to bring promise of the end of the pandemic. Constant mutations and adaptation of the virus had civilisation on a seemingly never-ending rollercoaster of hope and despair; news of increased vaccination rates being the highs and that of mutations and spikes in infection rates being the lows. Where do we stand now?

The question on when the end of the pandemic will be is one that has lingered in the minds of many since its onset in early 2020. The answer to this question: It cannot be modelled with certainty. Recent reports by WHO suggest that the Omicron variant could signal the end.

Its high transmissibility and lower probability of causing severe disease could finally offset the transition into the Covid endemic phase. Dr Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States, however, warns that this will only be the case if another variant that evades the immune response to the prior variants does not emerge.

This view is countered by a number of researchers who say that the situation remains difficult to model. According to Mark Woolhouse, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, Covid-19 will truly become endemic when most adults develop natural immunity to the virus from being exposed to it multiple times as children; this could take decades.

“This (Omicron) will not be the last variant, and so the next variant will have its own characteristics,” says Graham Medley, an infectious disease modeller at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“I don’t think vaccines are the way this pandemic is going to end," says Julian Tang, a consultant and virologist at the Leicester Royal Infirmary UK.

Though the answer on when the pandemic will end is uncertain, efforts should be made to bring its end as near as possible. This requires intentional efforts to aid in the multifrontal battle against the pandemic. According to Dr Tedros Adhanom, director general of WHO, beating Covid requires three things: Science, solutions and solidarity.

The role of science is to develop the understanding of the virus at all stages of the pandemic. Increased understanding of the pathogens is required to come up with solutions to the pandemic.

Researchers and vaccine development specialists have so far been a key component in the fight against Covid, giving a deeper understanding into what the disease is and how to combat it; coming up with vaccines and other solutions.

Role of solutions. Vaccines have played an important role in the battle against Covid-19 with the first being released on December 11, 2020. Positive efforts have been made by vaccine manufacturing companies to constantly meet global demand and build the immunity of the population.

As of February 7, 2022, more than 4.84 billion people worldwide had received a dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, equal to about 63 per cent of the world population. Although some researchers say this will not end the pandemic, it has significantly reduced hospitalisation and death rates giving people a one up against the virus.

Role of solidarity. No nation can single-handedly win the battle against Covid-19. In order to declare the situation disarmed, solutions should be shared and delivered equitably to ensure that all nations are considered to be safe.

Given the constantly mutating variants, quick adaptive vaccine development is imperative. However this responsibility should not be left in the hands of a few and as such establishing local vaccine manufacturing plants is necessary. Individuals should also do their part in minimising the spread of the virus by washing hands regularly, wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

The role that every party has to play in ending this pandemic is evidently clear. In the words of Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, “Ultimately, the greatest lesson that Covid-19 can teach humanity is that we are all in this together.”

Dr Rono is a Managing Partner at E&K Consulting Firm and a Member of the WHO Technical Advisory Board on Vaccines and Antimicrobial Resistance. Ms Makawiti is a final year student at Strathmore University and an Intern at E&K Consulting Firm


Covid 19 Time Series