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Covid still kills one person every four minutes

Health experts say vaccination is the best way to protect against it.

After more than three years, the global Covid emergency is officially over. Yet it still kills at least one person every four minutes and questions about how to fight the virus remain unanswered, putting vulnerable people and under-vaccinated countries at risk.

A key question is how to deal with a virus that has become less threatening for most but remains extremely dangerous for a segment of the population. That slice is much bigger than many realize: Covid is still one of the top killers, third in the US last year behind heart disease and cancer. Unlike other common causes of death such as smoking and traffic accidents that led to safety laws, politicians are not pushing to reduce harm, such as mandatory vaccinations or masking in enclosed spaces.

“The general desire in the world is to go beyond the pandemic and put Covid behind us, but we cannot put our heads in the sand,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, director of the Center for Epidemiology. Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System clinic in Missouri. “Covid still infects and kills many people. We have the means to reduce this burden.”

Even before the World Health Organization declared Covid no longer an emergency earlier this month, most governments had already relaxed lockdowns and guidelines. After spending heavily during the early stages of the pandemic, world leaders have slowed down and are reluctant to pursue preventative measures for which the public has run out of patience.

Meanwhile, the infection that has caused at least 20 million deaths worldwide continues to evolve, leaving the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions at the mercy of luck, unequal access to medicine and little protection from others without face masks or recent vaccines.

Why no long term plan?

A long-term global plan to protect the vulnerable and hold off a resurgence has not materialized, in part because of the difficulty of forging consensus around Covid. From the start, polarized political discourse overshadowed official guidelines on masking and vaccinations.

Even in developed countries where the vaccine became available less than a year after the start of the pandemic, many people refused to take it. Lack of vaccination has resulted in more than 300,000 excess American deaths, or one in two from Covid, throughout 2021. Globally, it could have saved half a million more, studies have found.

“We know that the politicization of public health is one of the tragedies of the pandemic,” Al-Aly said. “Political leaders have leveraged their responses not only to advance public health, but also to advance their own narrative and gain support for themselves.”

Global coordination has also been hampered by politics. China’s refusal to allow independent experts unimpeded access to a wet market seen as a Covid melting pot or the Wuhan Institute of Virology has added to diplomatic tension and mistrust. Today, Chinese officials are not participating in many global preparedness efforts, said Linfa Wang, a virologist and program director for emerging infectious diseases at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.

“It hampers academic collaboration, and China-US collaboration is almost nil,” Wang said. “With these two superpowers, if they don’t work together, how can we say the world is ready for the next disease?”

A waning sense of urgency has also meant that the surge in investment in Covid vaccines and therapeutics has also cooled. As companies such as Moderna Inc and Pfizer Inc continue to update their snaps, trying to make them easier to manufacture and store, many of the hundreds of innovative approaches originally devised have been abandoned.

In the United States, experts are due to meet in June to advise on which strain of the virus vaccines should target for the rest of the year. These vaccines will not be launched until the fall, with only 100 million doses expected in the United States according to Moderna estimates, far less than in previous years.

Why is it a problem?

Long Covid, which is estimated to affect around 10% of those infected, is considered one of the greatest post-pandemic medical challenges. The economic costs are also significant.

In the US, long Covid was costing around $50 billion a year in lost wages by the end of 2022. In the UK, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated last year that around one in 10 people with a long Covid had to stop working as a result. The number of people with these symptoms, including brain fog, difficulty breathing and fatigue, is increasing even as infections decline.

It’s especially scary for people at high risk, who have had to return to work and public spaces where masks are in short supply and the dangers are invisible. A family wedding can still turn into a super-spreader event, and a theft can be disastrous.


Epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee is painfully aware of this. Her husband Tom survived a drug-resistant infection with a rare superbug in 2016, but was left with scarred lungs and other medical issues. They understood the potential risk if he contracted Covid, so they were vigilant, limiting travel through the pandemic. Both were fully vaccinated and passionate about masks.

But a recent visit to their son in Canada caused an infection. At the hospital, where Tom was being treated for acute respiratory distress, she was surprised at how cavalier some young staff were about contracting Covid as they considered themselves at low risk, even though they could pass it on to patients.

“It’s not benign for everyone, and we know that repeated exposures increase your risk,” said Strathdee, also associate dean of global health sciences at the University of California, San Diego.

While people with active medical conditions may know how to take precautions, some will only learn they are vulnerable after an infection lands them in the hospital. Repeated episodes can make the damage worse, and that applies to everyone, not just those with pre-existing conditions.

What should we do?

The silver lining is that the world now has vaccines and better treatments. Tests can uncover infections in minutes and new outbreaks can be spotted quickly.

Health experts say vaccination is the best way to protect against it. Only about 16% of Americans received a bivalent booster, according to Pfizer Inc., compared to nearly 70% vaccinated during the first inoculation campaign. Rising outlays and vaccine fatigue could lead to further declines in adoption rates. In the longer term, the hope is that new vaccines or innovative nasal sprays will offer better protection.

There are other improvements that could help, ranging from ventilation and air quality testing to better masks. More investment is needed in surveillance systems so that threats can be detected early, experts said.

The United States also plans to spend $5 billion on a new project to develop advanced coronavirus vaccines and treatments in collaboration with drugmakers. The goal is to make drugs available quickly as the virus mutates, so that the targeted strain does not decline when it hits the market.

“Even though governments are tired, we have to face the reality that the virus continues to evolve,” said Wang of Duke-NUS.

(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)


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