How will the pandemic end? Nearly two years since it was officially declared by the World Health Organization (WHO), we’re still no closer to knowing the answer.
The highly transmissible Omicron variant has swept the globe since it was first detected in South Africa in November. But the fact that it is less likely to cause severe disease than previous coronavirus variants has led to heavy speculation over whether it might mark a turning point, or a conclusion, to the pandemic.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus poured cold water on that theory on Tuesday, saying: “This pandemic is nowhere near over.”
Omicron is continuing to infect the world at a startling speed, with more than 18 million cases reported last week alone, according to WHO. The number of Covid patients in the United States is at a record high and continues to climb, overwhelming hospitals. From Australia to Germany, infections are leaping to never-before-seen levels, putting a significant strain on health care systems.
“Omicron may be less severe – on average, of course – but the narrative that it is mild disease is misleading, hurts the overall response, and costs more lives,” Tedros said. “Make no mistake, Omicron is causing hospitalizations and deaths and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities. The virus is circulating far too intensely with many still vulnerable.”
The same message was echoed a day earlier by Dr. Anthony Fauci, US President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser. Fauci was asked at the online World Economic Forum if the coronavirus may this year transition from pandemic to endemic level, when a disease has a constant presence in a population but is not affecting an alarmingly large number of people. He replied: “I would hope that that’s the case, but that would only be the case if we don’t get another variant that eludes the immune response.”
Fauci added that the world is still in the first of what he described as five pandemic phases: “the truly pandemic phase,” where the world is “very negatively impacted,” which is followed by deceleration, control, elimination and eradication.
And yet some governments seem to be ignoring such phased steps, resigning themselves to the virus ripping through their populations indefinitely. According to their logic, “We need to learn to live with this virus.” But what exactly does that look like, and how long will it last?
In some European countries, pandemic strategy continues to down-shift toward fewer mitigation measures, reduced quarantine periods and fewer restrictions on travel. In fact, in places such as Spain, the thinking is to treat Omicron more like the flu — despite public health officials, including WHO, cautioning against that approach. “I think we have to evaluate the evolution of Covid to an endemic illness, from the pandemic we have faced up until now,” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said last week.
In Britain, which flirted with a controversial “herd immunity” strategy at the start of the pandemic and has continued to raise eyebrows with its “keep calm and carry on” attitude to the virus, an Omicron spike threatened to put the country’s health service on a “war footing.” But now that the wave seems to have crested — 93,890 new cases were reported on Tuesday compared to 129,544 on the same day last week — the limited “Plan B” restrictions imposed in December, which included masks on public transport, will be eased next week.
“Decisions on the next steps remain finely balanced,” Downing Street said in a statement, which emphasized that “the Omicron variant continues to pose a significant threat and the pandemic is not over.”
In other news:
- Australia, New Zealand and the WHO are working on contactless ways to deliver aid to tsunami-hit Tonga, which is one of the few places in the world to have remained almost entirely Covid free.
- Two of Pope Francis’ top aides have tested positive for Covid-19, Reuters reports.
- There are calls for France’s education minister to resign after he announced stringent new Covid rules for schools from an Ibiza beach holiday. Here’s what he had to say for himself: “In winter it’s not at all like in summer.”
- Hong Kong plans to cull 2,000 hamsters over coronavirus fears. Pet owners are outraged.
YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED
Q: How can I tell if my mask is authentic?
A: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said Americans should wear the most protective masks they can, but there are counterfeit respirators (specialized filtering masks such as KN95s and N95s) everywhere. Roughly 60% of the KN95 respirators evaluated during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a US federal agency that evaluates safety equipment, didn’t meet the requirements.
Properly fitted KN95 and N95 respirators are designed to filter up to 95% of particles in the air, but only the latter are approved for health-care use in the US. KN95s are certified in China, which makes them trickier to vet, and it’s a good idea to check whether the manufacturer has a valid lab report.
Here are a few signs that a respirator could be counterfeit, according to NIOSH:
- No markings at all on the filtering facepiece respirator
- No approval (TC) number on filtering facepiece respirator or headband
- No NIOSH markings, or NIOSH spelled incorrectly
- Presence of decorative fabric or other decorative add-ons (e.g. sequins)
- Filtering facepiece respirator has ear loops instead of headbands
You can look for further NIOSH approved products on the CDC website, as well as guidelines and example images detailing how to spot counterfeit masks.
Send your questions here. Are you a health care worker fighting Covid-19? Message us on WhatsApp about the challenges you’re facing: +1 347-322-0415.
READS OF THE WEEK
A fourth vaccine dose may not protect you from Omicron
Early data out of Israel suggests that a fourth dose of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna coronavirus vaccine can bring an increase in antibodies – more than what’s been seen after a third dose – but it still might not be enough to protect against breakthrough infections caused by the Omicron variant, Jacqueline Howard reports.
“These are very preliminary results. This is before any publication, but we’re giving it out since we understand the urgency of the public to get any information possible about the fourth dose,” Dr. Gili Regev-Yochay, director of the Infection Prevention and Control Unit at Sheba Medical Center, told reporters during a virtual news conference Monday about the data. She added that she supported giving fourth shots to vulnerable people who may see some benefit from it, but that the research probably was not enough to support a decision to dole it out to the wider population.
In December, Sheba Medical Center started trialing a fourth dose of the vaccines for healthy people ahead of the rollout of the additional booster shot to at-risk people, making it the first study of its kind. The research in Israel, an early leader in Covid vaccines, was being closely watched around the world as governments grapple with surging cases driven by Omicron.
Europe’s rule-breaking unvaccinated are falling out of society
Before Covid-19, Nicolas Rimoldi had never attended a protest. But somewhere along the pandemic’s long and tortuous road, which saw his native Switzerland imposing first one lockdown, then another, and finally introducing vaccination certificates, Rimoldi decided he had had enough. Now he leads Mass-Voll, one of Europe’s largest youth-orientated anti-vaccine passport groups.
Because he has chosen not to get vaccinated, student and part-time supermarket cashier Rimoldi is – for now, at least – locked out of much of public life. Without a vaccine certificate, he can no longer complete his degree or work in a grocery store. He is barred from eating in restaurants, attending concerts or going to the gym. “People without a certificate like me, we’re not a part of society anymore,” he said.
Faced with lingering pockets of vaccine hesitancy, or outright refusal, many nations are imposing ever stricter rules and restrictions on unvaccinated people, effectively making their lives more difficult in an effort to convince them to get their shots. In doing so, they are testing the boundary between public health and civil liberties – and heightening tensions between those who are vaccinated and those who are not, Rob Picheta reports.
China is risking its economy with zero-Omicron approach
The Chinese government’s unwavering insistence on stamping out any trace of the coronavirus is facing its biggest test yet as authorities grapple with Omicron’s quickening spread. And it could cost the world’s second-largest economy dearly this year, Laura He reports.
Covid-19 cases have been cropping up across China in recent days, including in major port cities like Dalian and Tianjin, prompting restrictions that could upend business operations in those places. In Beijing, a single Omicron case led to a snap lockdown and mass testing just weeks before the 2022 Winter Olympics. The rest of the world is also dealing with Omicron, but China is different because of how intent authorities are to prevent any widespread outbreak with their zero-Covid approach.
The strict strategy has so far been effective: China has recorded far fewer Covid-19 cases than many other nations during the pandemic, and its economy was the only major one to grow in 2020. But in the face of a more transmissible variant that is far more difficult to contain, and as the rest of the world learns to live with the virus, economists say China’s zero-tolerance strategy is likely to do more harm than good in 2022.
School closures are affecting children worldwide, according to research published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics that looked at children and adolescents from 11 countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Italy, Japan, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the US.
The research found kids experienced both mental and physical health problems – anxiety, depression, lower physical activity, food insecurity and school disengagement – linked to school closures and social lockdowns. Madeline Holcombe spoke with experts who had these tips for families trying to protect their children’s mental and physical health amid the turmoil:
- Find ways to get children out into the world safely, keep them busy and help build skills with them. Experts suggest activities like walking, outside playdates, meditation and yoga.
- Create a stable routine to help mitigate negative impacts. Experts say that a sense of predictability and control is key to all of our wellbeing.
- Focus on building connections and reassuring kids that they are still being taken care of by the adult world. Creating a safe and supportive home environment is the best thing families can do right now.
THIS WEEK’S PODCAST
The twists and turns of the pandemic have put many of us on edge. But did you know that changing your expectations can have a tangible effect on your wellbeing? In this week’s episode, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks to science writer David Robson about the ways that our thoughts about the future can impact our lives right now, for better or for worse. Listen here.