End of COVID-19 pandemic is 'in sight', WHO director says

·3 min read
Kiko Jimenez

The director of the World Health Organization said on Wednesday that the end of the COVID-19 pandemic may be near.

“Last week the number of weekly reported deaths from COVID-19 was the lowest since March of 2020,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic. We are not there yet, but the end is in sight.”

Like a marathon runner, we can’t stop when we see the finish line, Ghebreyesus said in a press conference. “Now is the worst time to stop running,” he added. “Now is the time to run harder and make sure we cross the line and reap all the rewards of our hard work.”

The virus has been trending downward for weeks and the WHO reports that deaths fell 22% last week with a little over 11,000 deaths worldwide and at the same time new infections decreased by 28% with 3.1 million new cases reported.

Nations must remain vigilant and continue to test, Ghebreyesus cautioned. “If we don’t take this opportunity now, we run the risk of more variants, more deaths, more disruption and more uncertainty,” he added.

Dr. William Schaffner worries that people will focus on the message that the pandemic’s end may be near and be incautious.

“It’s important to emphasize that it’s not going to disappear,” said Schaffner, a professor of infectious disease at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “We have to keep our guard up and continue to vaccinate and remain alert against new variants that may evade the protection of the vaccines we have now.”

Still, Schaffner said, it does appear that we are moving from a pandemic to an epidemic phase.

“A pandemic occurs when we have a global population susceptible to a new virus and we have a great deal of spread with the consequence of a big strain on the public health system,” Schaffner said.

Now many people have gained immunity from vaccination or from surviving infection with SARS-CoV-2, he added.

“I call it a smoldering illness,” Schaffner said. “It hasn’t gone away. And it’s still causing more than 400 deaths a day in this country. That’s not trivial, but it’s much different from a year ago when the health care system was stressed and ICUs were filled and there were many more deaths.”

It’s not time to declare victory over COVID-19, said Dr. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

“It’s too soon to turn the page,” Lipkin said. While the declining numbers of new cases and deaths is to be celebrated, “SARS-CoV-2 has thrown us curveballs in the past and is continuing to evolve. And there is the potential for the emergence of new variants capable of causing more severe disease.”

Moreover, Lipkin said, many people are being crippled by long COVID, which is poorly understood and difficult to diagnose. “We don’t know whether the number of people with new onset long COVID will decrease,” he added. “Even if it does, we need to find solutions for the millions now suffering with long COVID.

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This article was originally published on TODAY.com