In the global situation of the covid-19 pandemic, including the Ômicron variant, there are 6.2 million reported deaths, with 511 million cases accumulated. But, according to the technical director of the World Health Organization (WHO) for Covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, the number of deaths from the disease should be three times higher, due to the absence of tests. The information was given by the director during a lecture at the magna meeting of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC), held today (5), in Rio de Janeiro, whose main theme was the role of science in building the future.
According to the epidemiologist, each country is facing a different situation with covid-19. There are several factors for this to happen. “It has to do with past and current strategy, current epidemiology and virus circulation, population demographics, population immunity levels with vaccination, whether there is a high prevalence of immunization, understanding the complexity of immunity, if it still needs a lot of research, access to life-saving tools and the ability to adjust”, enumerated Maria Van Kerkhove.
According to the director of the WHO, one of the major problems perceived in the pandemic was the lack of trust of science and the public. Another obstacle is the lack of complete vaccination in populations over 60 years of age, perceived in many countries, or that have not yet had any doses.
In South Africa, for example, she said that with each new wave of Covid-19, there was very low vaccination coverage. In South Korea, a high level of vaccination coverage was identified, following a zero covid strategy, which resulted in the modernization of the public health system and investments in human resources.
The epidemiologist criticized the fact that some countries have given up masks against covid-19, especially in closed places. According to Maria Van Kerkhove, there is a lot of disinformation and politicization, which have diminished the effectiveness of these measures. “I’ve never seen this before,” she said, referring to all her experiences with flare-ups.
She also mentioned the disinformation policies in some countries, which caused many deaths from the disease. Maria Van Kerkhove said that the pandemic is not over and what needs to be done is to optimize global and national strategies, some main objectives: to prevent diagnosis, treat the disease and reduce morbidity and mortality, in addition to reducing transmission, the which includes protection from exposure, especially of the most vulnerable, of those who have not been vaccinated. It is also necessary, according to the epidemiologist, to reduce the risk of the emergence of variants. “Focusing on just one (variant) creates a sense of false security, because we don’t know what the cost of the variants will be.”
The WHO’s expectation is that the virus will continue to evolve. “We hope with a low severity, because we have tools and vaccination, population immunization increasing”, he said. She’s betting we’ll see smaller outbreaks among those who aren’t protected. “We will have a seasonality, because it is a respiratory pathogen,” she said.
The worst-case scenario predicts a more transmissible and lethal variant, in which it will be necessary to carry out a serious review of vaccines and boost vaccination in the most vulnerable populations, he warns. There is also a good scenario where the variants are less severe and we just keep the already existing protections.
Maria Van Kerkhove said that the WHO is still preparing for a fourth scenario, which would be the emergence of a virus so different that the entire global population would be susceptible to it. “Post-covid management will be essential in this scenario”.
Many studies are already reporting the consequences of Covid-19, including serious brain, heart and lung conditions, he said.
Maria Van Kerkhove cited WHO’s main focus areas as surveillance and testing strategies, which have dropped dramatically. “This is important to predict the virus. We need to ensure that this is maintained.”
In terms of vaccination, the WHO target is to reach 70% of the populations of all immunized countries. And, within these 70%, reach 100% of health professionals and individuals with comorbidities. “Vaccine coverage is much lower than it should be in some countries, especially in Africa,” he warned.
The epidemiologist said that with the advances in vaccines against covid-19 that we already have, and the development of future vaccines for the disease, it has been a scientific triumph. One of the good things she saw in this pandemic was the global solidarity among scientists.
According to the director of the WHO, 11.7 billion doses of vaccine have been distributed globally, with 41 million doses being administered daily, but only 59% of people have completed the main vaccination and only 13% in low-income countries. “It’s about access, not charity,” she said.
Maria Van Kerkhove said there is a lot of work to be done. And that it is necessary to create systems for the future, with sustainable investments, because no one is safe until everyone is safe. “And these systems have to be efficient locally, to then gain wider scope. Pandemic preparation will not stop. And testing is the way to the future.”