The end of the COVID-19 pandemic may finally be in sight, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD announced Wednesday in a press briefing.
“Last week, the number of weekly reported deaths from COVID-19 was the lowest since March 2020,” said Ghebreyesus. “We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic—we’re not there yet, but the end is in sight.”
The WHO released six short policy briefs with steps that countries need to take now to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t worsen, which include testing and vaccination.
“A marathon runner does not stop when the finish line comes into view. She runs harder, with all the energy she has left. So must we. We can see the finish line, we are in a winning position, but now is the worst time to stop running,” Ghebreyesus added. “If we don’t take this opportunity now we run the risk of more variants, more deaths, more disruption, and more uncertainty.”
But, with various levels of vaccination status, access to antiviral treatments, and other preventative measures around the world, what would it really take for the pandemic to end?
Experts explain what the next phase of the pandemic might be, if we can get there with the current public health measures we have in place, and what could pose a risk to our plans of returning to normalcy.
Though upwards of 50,000 new COVID cases are still being reported daily in the U.S., the death rate of COVID is declining—and it may signal that we’re reaching a new, more manageable phase of the pandemic.
For the week of September 5, the WHO reported just over 11,300 global deaths due to COVID. Weekly deaths from the virus have not exceeded 20,000 since mid April, even as case numbers have increased.
“In an epidemic where you’ve seen so much death […] the first thing you’d want to do is minimize death,” Abraar Karan, MD, infectious disease doctor and researcher at Stanford University, told Health. “Then you would focus on minimizing hospitalizations, you then minimize transmission and yes, you want to do all those things at the same time. But death is, of course, the most important outcome for any disease.”
With all of the tools to fight COVID—masking, vaccines, testing, and antiviral treatments—the disease and death from it can be prevented, which is what’s being reflected in the data.
“We expect there to be future waves of infection but that doesn’t necessarily have to translate into future waves of death, because there is so much that we can do,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, technical lead for the COVID-19 response at the World Health Organization, in a press briefing.
An End in Sight—But Not Here Yet
Though President Biden was quoted during a CBS 60 Minutes interview on Sunday saying the “pandemic is over” — that’s not entirely accurate. “The pandemic is over, we still have a problem with COVID, we’re still doing a lot of work on it,” Biden told CBS’s Scott Pelley.
Biden it seems, may have been referring the middle ground that has been reached in the battle with COVID-19. While many of us have largely returned to life as normal COVID continues to be a serious issue that needs to be addressed as people continue to build up immunity through infection and vaccination.
Ghebreyesus and other experts, say the pandemic, right now, is still ongoing, and we won’t be able to eliminate unnecessary deaths from COVID without immense amounts of continued and ongoing cooperation.
“We can end this pandemic together, but only if all countries, manufacturers, communities, and individuals step up and seize this opportunity,” said Ghebreyesus.
In other words, explains Susan Hassig, DrPH, MPH, associate professor of epidemiology at Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, we have strategies to curtail the pandemic, but they’re not yet widely adopted.
“We have a lot of tools available to us that we did not have in March of 2020 that greatly modify and blunt the severe impacts of infection with this virus,” Hassig told Health. “But—and it’s a big but—we still don’t have levels of vaccination in all locations, in all populations at high risk, at levels where they should be.”
It can be frustrating for people to continue to incorporate preventative measures into their daily routines, she added, especially if they themselves are not at risk of dying from COVID. But throwing in the towel now could cause us to regress and see case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths go up.
According to Hassig, using the word “end” when it comes to COVID-19 is also problematic.
“The virus is not going away,” said Hassig. “The question and the problem we have with an RNA virus like coronavirus or like influenza is that—and this one has demonstrated that—it’s going to continue to mutate as it moves into other new individuals. And we just don’t know what those mutations are going to look like.”
This is why those six strategies outlined by the WHO are such an important part of this messaging, Dr. Karan said.
The WHO recommends that all countries continue to:
Offer testing and sequence for new virus mutations Make sure those who test positive for COVID have access to careKeep up infection prevention and control strategies in health care facilitiesReach vaccination targets, especially for those who are at highest risk Fight against COVID misinformation Build community trust by accurately communicating risks
“Each of these tenants are sort of key critical pillars that you need, not just for COVID, but really for any kind of epidemic—monkeypox, or whatever we deal with next,” said Dr. Karan.
With more aggressive strategies—like quarantines or mask mandates—likely behind us, experts say that more innocuous prevention measures may stay with us for a while.
More individualized wastewater testing for COVID—testing schools or nursing homes, for example—could be good ways of keeping tabs on the virus, Hassig said. If a small community is seeing an outbreak, it’d be more helpful to have just those affected mask up or test more frequently, rather than imposing those measures on a whole city, county, or state.
Increased ventilation and air filtration are also good solutions to help stop the spread of COVID without it being a burden on people’s everyday lives, Dr. Karan added.
But people will likely still need to be prepared and ready to increase their prevention strategies, based on what’s happening around them and who they come into contact with.
If we are able to avoid a newly dangerous variant and keep deaths at a minimum globally, it’s possible then that we could see a less volatile version of the pandemic that we’ve known for the last couple years.
COVID will likely never completely go away—and may likely look similar to the flu at some point—but health experts seem hopeful that by committing to prevention strategies now and into the future when necessary, the virus may become less of a constant worry or concern.
“I do think that we’ve sort of turned a corner at some point recently. But with that said, we’re quite vulnerable in the sense that whatever variants we deal with, in the future, we’ll have to keep pushing. It’s sort of a continuous process—revaccinating, treating people with antivirals effectively and quickly, monitoring variants,” Dr. Karan said. “Maybe what we know of COVID as like, the 2020 through 2022 COVID, that phase is on its way out.”
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