Earlier this year, 13 May, US President Joe Biden gave his “a great day” speech. He was tempted, it was clear from his body language and the wide smile on his face, to declare victory over the coronavirus pandemic. He stopped short of that but nevertheless he indicated the fight may be over soon.
The Biden almost there speech followed the famous recommendation the evening earlier by the CDC, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, to end the mandatory face mask wearing indoors as new infection cases in the US continued to decline. In that month, daily cases were averaging at less than 30,000.
“I think it’s a great milestone. A great day,” Biden said in his address to the nation, adding that the was “made possible by the extraordinary success we’ve had in vaccinating so many Americans so quickly.”
Three months later, Biden couldn’t be further from the reality on the ground. He somehow reminded me of the famous George W. Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003, when he declared victory in Iraq 5 weeks after the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq in March that year. Little he knew that 18 years later, his country would be fighting old regime residues and few other terrorist groups intent on killing as many Iraqi and Americans as possible.
Indoor masks mandated again
Today, and despite the high rate of vaccination in the US, COVID-19 cases are on the rise, indoor masks are being mandated again by several states and schools are reluctant to invite students to come to classes, which will start in the first week of September. On Friday, the US registered 155,297 new cases and 800 deaths. According to the World Health Organisation, there were 721,000 new cases worldwide on Friday.
It wasn’t just Biden and his CDC that got it wrong. The global consultant firm, McKinsey & Company released a policy note on the last week of March claiming that the fall in cases, globally “signals a new dawn in the fight against the disease.” The note said that vaccines are “proving effective and rapidly scaling, bending the curve in many geographies,” adding that “many aspects of social and economic life [will] return to the pre-pandemic normal life” by the second quarter of 2021, particularly in the US and the UK.
When Biden gave his speech, the US has had a steady decline in cases, to less than 30,000 in average. But India was registering record number of cases and deaths- almost 400,000 new cases daily and 5,000 deaths. (Experts said at the time those numbers were significantly underreported).
The world has already then started to talk about a new COVD-10 strain, a deadlier and more contagious variant named Delta, which will in the next three months lead to a new global wave of infections. The US today is on the verge of a fourth wave, American scientists warn.
A more sobering assessment
But more importantly, Delta has led to a more sobering assessment of the pandemic, which I think is more realistic and in sync with the natural evolution of things. Eradicating the coronavirus completely has been the ultimate goal of all governments and disease scientists since early las year, taking into account its catastrophic impact on life and the economy.
But in all our human history, we have never been able to fully eradicate a virus. That happened once; the eradication of smallpox in 1980. That achievement though took decades to realise through synchronised efforts between researchers, health scientists and governments. We have to underscore decades here. The coronavirus is thus far too young to start discussing its eradication.
With that taken off the list of tasks, several governments suggested that the so- called ‘herd immunity’ is the next best thing to beat the virus. But with the rise in new cases worldwide since the arrival of Delta, despite the rapid pace of vaccination, has forced a rethinking of the herd immunity concept.
Early on, the first half of 2020, experts talked about the need to achieve the goal of vaccinating 50 percent of the population in order to realise the herd immunity. Today that percentage seems too little to protect the rest of the community.
According to a Bloomberg report, published by Gulf News at the weekend, “the herd immunity is now no longer a realistic goal.” The report said the Infectious Diseases Society of America estimated that “Delta had pushed the threshold for herd immunity to well over 80 percent and possibly close to 90 percent.”
What about herd immunity?
Those number practically seem astronomical with the current rate of vaccination in many parts of the world, especially in the developing world. In the majority of these country, the rate of vaccination is less than 10 percent. “Will we get to herd immunity?
No, very unlikely, by definition,” the report quotes Greg Poland, director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota as saying. Even a vaccination rate of as high as 95 per cent wouldn’t achieve it, he insists.
With both the objectives of eradicating the virus and achieving total immunity appearing nearly impossible today, there is only obvious way for us: living with the virus. Even those who say that the virus will diminish by the end of this year or the next don’t sound so sure.
Thus, “we need to start shifting our thinking from eradication and disease elimination anytime soon, to more disease management, the way we think about flu,” Dr. Carlos Del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine and Grady Health System in Atlanta tells ABC.
What it means is the pandemic may end one day, as part of the virus evolution, which could weaken. But for now, its rate of transmission depends on our own behaviour.
We need thus to evolve our behaviour in a way that minimises the transmission of COVID-19 through commitment to best precautionary practices such as mask wearing, avoiding unnecessary crowds and sticking to sanitary habits.
Humanity lived with different viruses for thousands of years. There are literally billions of viruses that exist on earth. At least 200 of them are known to cause diseases in humans. We will have to do the same with the coronavirus.