Will COVID-19 pandemic truly come to an end in 2022?
WHO urged to play ‘leading role’ in ending vaccine inequity, completely abandon ‘politicization’
Published: Dec 21, 2021 10:30 PM
Mask-clad parents and children are seen in the inoculation area on the inaugural day of the children inoculation at the Feira Internacional de Lisboa 4th pavilion during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic on December 18, 2021, in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: VCG

Mask-clad parents and children are seen in the inoculation area on the inaugural day of the children inoculation at the Feira Internacional de Lisboa 4th pavilion during the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic on December 18, 2021, in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: VCG

After the World Health Organization (WHO) chief on Monday sounded the alarm over the fast spread of the Omicron variant while stating the world must end the pandemic in 2022, Chinese observers said the precondition for ending the pandemic lies in whether the WHO can play a leading role in ending vaccine inequity and developing more effective vaccines, truly unite member states and global scientists, and abandon politicization.

Days ahead of the Christmas festival, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned during a media briefing that there is now consistent evidence that "Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant," and it's more likely that people who have been vaccinated could be infected.

"There can be no doubt that increased social mixing over the holiday period in many countries will lead to increased cases, overwhelmed health systems and more deaths," Tedros said, calling on countries to cancel or delay events, as "an event cancelled is better than a life cancelled."

Tedros stated that "2022 must be the year we end the pandemic," and WHO is committed to doing everything in its power to end the pandemic. He said "if we are to end the pandemic in the coming year, we must end inequity, by ensuring 70 percent of the population of every country is vaccinated by the middle of next year."

In answering the Global Times' questions on whether the WHO has made plans for the world to end the pandemic, a spokesperson replied in an email on Tuesday that the organization doesn't have anything to add beyond the media briefing.

Meanwhile, Chinese health professionals are apparently cautious about ending the pandemic in 2022, as some who said they were hopeful listed several preconditions and urged the WHO to strengthen its role. Others said they have not yet seen any tangible evidence showing the pandemic is ebbing.

Jin Dongyan, a biomedical professor at the University of Hong Kong, said right now is "the beginning of an end," adding there is hope that we could end the pandemic in 2022.

"But a most important thing is that the WHO can truly play a leading role in some critical preconditions such as ending vaccine inequity, and researching new vaccines and medicines," Jin said.

On the evolution of variants, Jin said current evidence showed that later variants tended to be stronger in infectivity, but less pathogenic, as Omicron spread faster than Delta, but has not necessarily caused more deaths.

The key is how to make sure enough people get vaccinated to build herd immunity and develop more effective vaccines that can offer prolonged protection, Jin said.

Similar to influenza, Jin suggested that the WHO coordinate with member states to regularly review and update the virus needed for the COVID-19 vaccine, based on the spread of the actual variant.

Lu Hongzhou, head of the Third People's Hospital of Shenzhen and member of the expert committee of national disease control and prevention, told the Global Times on Tuesday that ending the pandemic must rely on scientific and technological means, namely, more effective vaccines.

Current COVID-19 vaccines can prevent deaths and reduce the severity of the illness, but they can hardly prevent infections. Effective vaccines should be inhaled vaccines, which can generate protective antibodies in the upper respiratory tract, Lu said, noting "this is the path to prevent the virus from entering our bodies, and it could both prevent infection and transmission."

Chinese vaccine producer CanSinoBIO and researchers from the Institute of Military Medicine under the Academy of Military Sciences led by Chen Wei jointly developed China's first inhaled vaccine, which many experts see as a promising candidate for booster shots that use inactivated vaccines.

Meanwhile, people should also receive effective intramuscular vaccines that can offer prolonged protection, he said.

The world would achieve herd immunity after people received effective vaccines. "We can truly control the pandemic by then," he said.

However, a Beijing-based immunologist who requested anonymity told the Global Times that there is no evidence to say there is an end of the pandemic, as we don't have very effective vaccines and the variants are constantly mutating.

"Even if the WHO declared the end of the pandemic next year, it's more about ending it politically rather than biologically," he said.

While urging the WHO to truly play its leading role, analysts stressed that the WHO must firmly adhere to science.

At the same media briefing, while warning of the severity of Omicron, Tedros also said China must be more forthcoming with data and information related to the origin of the SARS-CoV-2, Reuters said.

The immunologist said that Tedros was obviously influenced by the US-led West by raising the issue of the origin and attacking China, as countries like the US - facing a growing pressure of cases - need  desperately to ease their domestic pressures and governing crises by shifting the blame of their failures in COVID-19 response to China.

The Omicron variant is raging through much of the world. The fast-spreading variant is the main coronavirus strain in the US, accounting for 73.2 percent of the new cases over the past week, but President Joe Biden did not plan on "locking the country down," the White House said on Monday. Biden is expected to address the nation about his administration's plans for combating the surge of cases.

Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said on Tuesday that she had tested positive for COVID-19 after taking a rapid test.

In Europe, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that the COVID-19 situation was "extremely difficult," and he said "we have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public."

Germany's Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has ruled out a Christmas lockdown but warned a fifth COVID-19 wave could no longer be stopped, Reuters reported.

Obsessing over the origins of SARS-CoV-2 when the world is facing the rapid spread of the disease is actually politicizing the issue of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, Lu said. He said the world should be more focused on how to scientifically prevent the spread of the pandemic, and developing and administering more effective vaccines.