- Experts say COVID-19 is here to stay but it won’t dominate our lives.
- A billion vaccines have been donated to developing countries - more to follow.
- Vaccine manufacturers are developing a single annual booster shot.
- Increased vaccine take-up and natural immunity means fewer restrictions are required.
The world is heading into the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic in the grip of a surge in cases caused by the rapid spread of the Omicron variant. But despite the almost vertical spikes on the infection data charts, there is a measured optimism from those at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19.
Speaking on the first day of the World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda 2022 virtual meeting, four leading experts in the global fight against COVID-19 shared their views on how the world can move from pandemic to endemic in 2022.
Living alongside COVID-19
Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told the panel: “It’s not that you’re going to eliminate this disease completely. We’re not going to do that, but hopefully it will be at such a low level that it doesn’t disrupt our normal social, economic and other interactions with each other.”
To get to those low levels, Dr Fauci stressed the importance of a unified approach to developing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines and tackling new variants as they emerge. “We really don't want to get into the whack-a-mole approach towards every new variant where it comes up and you all of a sudden have to make a new booster against a particular thing because you'll be chasing it forever. So that's the reason why one of the things we are really all pushing for is…finding out what the mechanisms are that induces a response to a commonality among all of the different - real and potential variants - that we're seeing and that can occur.”
Sharing COVID-19 vaccines worldwide
After a slow start to the distribution of vaccines beyond wealthy countries, availability is improving in low and middle income countries.
“Let me celebrate an important milestone that was passed actually on Saturday,” Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparadness Innovations (CEPI) told the Davos Agenda panel.
“COVAX, which is the CEPI, Gavi, WHO and UNICEF-led effort to distribute vaccines globally, particularly to lower-middle and low-income countries - passed the threshold of having delivered a billion doses.”
Those billion vaccines have been delivered to 144 countries and there is confidence that manufacturing and supply will improve into 2022.
Vaccine manufacturers are also working to increase production capacity and minimize the number of jabs and boosters required to maintain a high level of protection from the serious illnesses that COVID-19 can cause, the panel explained. Limiting the number of doses required will ease the logistical problems in supplying shots to less-developed countries and may reduce vaccine hesitancy.
Stéphane Bancel, CEO of vaccine-maker Moderna told the session: “You know, in 2021 we shipped 807 million doses. We're very proud that around 25% went to middle income and low income countries, and we're continuing to ramp up. We have a lot of capacity coming online in Q1, this quarter, we will be able to make 2-3 billion doses for this year.” Streamlining the vaccination schedule is also a priority for Moderna, Bancel explained. “Our goal is to have a single annual booster so that we don’t have compliance issues where people don’t want to get two to three shots a winter.”
Future strategies for coping with COVID-19
After more than two years defined by restrictions such as working from home, curtailed social and family lives and travel bans, the panel heard that 2022 could be the year we see the return of a more normal way of life, or at least a new normal.
Professor Annelies Wilder-Smith from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the panel; “We are in a different space than we were two years ago. Two years ago, we had a population of 7.7 billion people with zero immunity to the COVID-19 virus. Now, more than 50% of the world's population has received two doses, and this is further strengthened with now the rapid autoimmunity being built up by natural infection. So we're in a different space, and we now need to rethink and re-evaluate some of our strategies.”