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When Will the Pandemic End?

Salvador Macip, MD, PhD

Disclosures

June 24, 2021

Things are looking good. In many countries, the rates of new COVID-19 cases are plummeting as vaccination efforts ramp up. The US has already immunized half of its population, including those most susceptible to end up in the hospital or die of the disease. This, together with a more energetic (and intelligent) approach of the Biden administration to the containment of the pandemic, has led to a steady decrease of cases, from the record high numbers in January (758 per million, averaged in 7 days*) to the current lows (45 per million*), not seen since everything began. There are reasons to be optimistic. And this is a problem.

We need optimism, don't get me wrong. After almost a year and a half of suffering, death, and restrictions, it's high time we start looking at the bright side of things, the light at the end of the tunnel. Only, the tunnel may be longer than we think. This is why optimism can't replace caution.

Take the example of the UK, the country where I live, where 60% of the population is already vaccinated and, in early April, cases were half of those seen in the US. Since then, the arrival of the Delta variant, first discovered in India, has turned everything upside down. Although admissions and mortality are still low, cases have quadrupled, and the plan of lifting all restrictions permanently before the end of June has gone awry. This shows how fragile the situation is. A butterfly flapping its wings in Asia is going to set in motion a wave that will likely surf through Europe this summer, postponing the long-awaited return to a certain sense of normalcy. We are not going to have much time to relax these next months if we want to stop this before it gets out of control.

When will this pandemic end, then? Paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr., no one is safe until we are all safe. A pandemic, by definition, is a worldwide problem. This means that it doesn't matter whether your country is free of virus or not: If COVID-19 is running rampant somewhere on the planet, we are all still in danger. Each new contagion is an opportunity for SARS-CoV-2 to mutate into a more aggressive variant, one that, perhaps, could escape the antibodies we have generated thanks to the vaccine. That's why it's imperative to accelerate vaccination efforts, and to do it rationally: Out of the 2.26 billion jabs given so far, only 0.2% have reached low-income countries. This is not only unfair but also dangerous for everyone.

The tide seems to be (finally) turning, with President Biden's recent pledge to donate 500 million doses to the COVAX initiative, followed by 500 more from the EU and 100 from the UK. Even if this is just the surplus, it is a very much welcome change of pace. When it comes to immunizations, we've all played the "our country first" card, rather shamefully. It's only now, when richer countries feel safe enough, that we are allowing ourselves to be less selfish and start doing what we should have done from day one. This is actually what will determine when the pandemic ends: our altruism. If we manage to vaccinate most of the world before a more resilient variant emerges, then we will be able to announce the death of COVID-19, at least in its present form.

Parts of the world will return to their normal lives during this year. Others may take another year, perhaps two. In the meantime, we will all be still together in the same tunnel, staring at the light. There is no reason for celebration when somewhere in the world people are still dying of a preventable disease. We should never forget this, even when the COVID-19 crisis is over.

(*) All figures come from Our World in Data.

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About Dr Salvador Macip
Salvador Macip, MD, PhD is a doctor, researcher and writer. He obtained his MD/PhD at the University of Barcelona (Spain) in 1998, then moved to do oncological research at the Mount Sinai Hospital (New York). Since 2008, he has led the Mechanisms of Ageing and Cancer Lab at the University of Leicester (UK). Macip has published over 30 books, including Where Science and Ethics Meet (2016) and Modern Epidemics (2021). Connect with him on Twitter: @DrMacip

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