I’ve hunted viruses for years. I say hunting because that’s how it works. To defeat a viral threat, we must act faster than it does.
H1N1 fortunately died of its own accord. HIV is still a threat, but 20 years of concerted global efforts have led to us now having the upper hand. And while we will continue to see Ebola outbreaks, the world won when it defeated an unprecedented epidemic in West Africa six years ago.
Covid is different. Instead of surpassing the virus, we seem to have missed the finish line and declared victory. The masks have come off, restrictions have been relaxed, systematic testing and reporting regimes are becoming a thing of the past, and most of the world has turned its attention to the following.
You might be able to do that with a more conventional security threat – wars end, conflicts can be resolved and enemies defeated.
But viruses are different for two reasons. First, they are invisible, a quality that serves them well. And second, viruses multiply at an alarming rate and when obstacles arise, they mutate.
We may be tired of Covid, but it goes on. Consider a few facts about a virus that epidemiologists have described as “impressive,” “capable,” and “extremely efficient.”
Covid has killed nearly 20 million people worldwide. More than 14 million new cases were documented in the past month. According to Our World in Data, 13,000 patients with Covid were hospitalized in the US in early May; by the end of the month, that number had risen to 24,000. Omicron turns into new sub-variants that appear to have greater resistance to antibodies than their predecessors. Meanwhile, recent studies suggest that vaccines only marginally reduce the risk of long-term Covid and that as many as one in five cases can progress to long-term Covid.
We can’t just declare that this pandemic is over, but we can put an end to it. The tragic irony is that with good science, data, vaccines and now treatments, we have what we need to get the job done. What we need is the will to act.
That’s why we at the ONE Campaign are calling for a five-point plan to end the pandemic. It will cost real money, but will also prove a lot cheaper than pretending that a pandemic that could cost the world nearly $14 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund, is no longer a threat.
The effort requires more than money, political capital that is scarce in many countries, spread over a pandemic that is killing millions of people.
To surpass the ongoing spread of the virus, we must:
Meeting the global demand for vaccines.
The World Health Organization has set an initial target of 70% vaccination coverage in all countries – a target we are a long way from achieving. Even if that global goal is wishful thinking, we need to at least meet countries’ individual goals, make sure people who want vaccines can get them, and prioritize those most vulnerable to the virus.
For the United States, that also means coughing up the funding needed to deliver vaccines already purchased by the government to the people around the world who need them. Right now, a Congressional request awaits Congressional action to get $5 billion for gunfire in some of the world’s poorest and under-vaccinated countries.
If the plan is to “live with the virus”, the world needs the tool to make that work.
Most rich countries have those tools; most poor countries do not. We need to make sure that testing, diagnostics and treatments are widely available everywhere.
Solve the problem of access to medicines.
We are fortunate that researchers and scientists have developed effective vaccines. But we would be foolish to think that we are outpacing the virus by only vaccinating parts of the world.
Rich countries have reached a vaccination rate of more than 70%; the poorest countries in the world struggle to rise above 14%. We need to rectify that imbalance by sharing more vaccines and the resources to deliver them. And we need new rules for the future that can ensure that medical countermeasures are available and affordable worldwide in the event of a future pandemic.
Then there is the matter of economic recovery.
There’s a lot in the news about the recovery, but it’s not global. In the face of the economic crisis that unfolded parallel to the pandemic, the world’s richest countries have been able to fall back on stimulus packages worth trillions of dollars; poor countries have gone into debt.
Wisely, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen backed a new issue of Special Drawing Rights, international reserves maintained by the International Monetary Fund, in February 2021 and called on rich countries to share their allocations with poor countries. The international community rallied behind the plan, but those shared assets have yet to be delivered.
Finally, we must prepare for the next viral threat as if it could be another global pandemic.
The world has a poor track record on this front. In the wake of the Ebola epidemic, there was enthusiasm for funding prevention and preparedness, but within a few years as the urgency faded, that enthusiasm waned. We need to invest now for the future – in capacity building, research, surveillance and response mechanisms.
This pandemic has killed millions, turned the lives of millions of others upside down and caused the first increase in extreme poverty in 25 years.
But more astonishing is the fact that we had and still have the tools, resources and knowledge to defeat the virus. Leaders around the world need to recognize that giving in to exhaustion before the race is over means letting the virus win.