PANDEMIC

We underestimated virulence of the coronavirus

Pace of vaccine rollout is pathetic. Only 24m doses have been administered in 41 countries

In Summary
  • Only 24m doses have been administered in 41 countries
  • There is urgent need, in the light of the high rate of transmissibility of the variants, to re-evaluate the efficacy of current public health measures

More than 90 million people globally have been infected by the SARS-Cov-2 virus, which causes Covid-19. Moreover, the average number of daily positive cases in the months of December and January has doubled compared to October 2020.

Multiple Covid-19 variants are circulating in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada and South Africa. The variants spreading in Europe and North America have emerged independently. However, the current detections do not reflect the true distribution of the variants of virus. More testing, characterisation and genomic surveillance will be needed to determine patterns of SARS-Cov-2 mutations globally.

Mutations are not uncommon. They are part of virus evolution, which arise from random errors when the virus replicates so it can spread and thrive inside the body of the host. Sometimes mutations are induced by antiviral proteins inside an infected person’s body. While the variants or lineages initially identified in the UK and South Africa have remarkably higher transmissibility, there is no evidence to date, that the variants exacerbate disease severity or mortality.

Given the rapid spread of Covid-19 globally, it is now a race against time. Critical and scarce healthcare resources have been sucked up in responding to Covid-19. At the same time, the disease is depleting human capital and physical resources in both public and private health facilities, hence undermining our capacity to respond robustly. The rates of morbidity are overwhelming and now crowd out critical and limited resources necessary for attending to chronic and emergency care needs.

These mutations are concerning. There is need for more concerted efforts to coordinate a robust and collective global response. Under the aegis of WHO and regional CDCs, we need coordinated testing, characterisation, genomic surveillance and data sharing to determine patterns of SARS-Cov-2 mutations globally.

Moreover, authorities in affected countries must conduct more epidemiologic and virologic testing to assess and determine more conclusively, the transmissibility and severity of extant variants.

Equally important will be coordinated national, regional and global efforts to understand if and how the mutations will affect the effectiveness of existing diagnostics, therapeutics and more importantly, performance of the vaccines currently being administered.

There is urgent need, in the light of the high rate of transmissibility of the variants, to re-evaluate the efficacy of current public health measures, such as social distancing, handwashing and use of masks, and yes, lockdowns. These measures have been relaxed in many countries in the last few months.

The pace of vaccine rollout is pathetic. Only 24 million doses of vaccine have been administered in 41 counties. In the US, only 7.73 million doses have been administered, against a target of 20 million does by end of December 2020. Not one dose has been administered on the African continent.

We underestimated the virulence of the coronavirus. It’s now a race against time. We must double down on public health measures and increase vaccination rates exponentially. Given the virus variants, we need to embark on updating or tweaking Covid-19 vaccines immediately, just as we do for influenza.