The world could see an end to the “acute phase” of the pandemic this year, the period in which it remains an international emergency, if countries pull together to get vaccines to those parts of the world that have not received them and bolster testing, sequencing and the monitoring of new variants.
That’s according to the head of the World Health Organization whose comments at an executive board meeting Monday were echoed by other experts, offering a glimpse of optimism that the worst of the crisis may be approaching an end.
“If countries use all of these strategies and tools in a comprehensive way, we can end the acute phase of the pandemic this year – we can end COVID-19 as a global health emergency, and we can do it this year, said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in a statement.
To get there, the world must meet the agency’s target of vaccinating 70% of the population of every country, with a focus on the most at-risk groups, he said. Vaccines alone “are not the golden ticket out of the pandemic,” but there is no path out without a high inoculation rate, he said.
Hans Kluge, WHO head of Europe, said the fast spread of the highly contagious omicron variant offers “plausible hope” for some semblance of a return to normalcy in the coming months. While cautioning that it’s too soon to drop mitigation measures, Kluge said in a statement that between vaccination and natural immunity due to infection, the variant could lead to stabilization over time.
“The pandemic is far from over, but I am hopeful we can end the emergency phase in 2022 and address other health threats that urgently require our attention,” said Kluge.
In the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, told ABC’s “This Week” that “things are looking good” and appear headed in the right direction, although he cautioned that unvaccinated people remain at high risk of becoming ill.
He also warned that the virus has surprised in the past and that cases are still climbing in southern and western states, where omicron arrived later than in the Northeast.
Fauci said he was hopeful that in the next weeks to month, the U.S. will have a low enough level of transmission of the virus that it will be “essentially integrated into the general respiratory infections that we have learned to live with.”
The U.S. average daily case tally is starting to decline, according to a New York Times tracker, although they remain high at more than 690,000 a day. Hospitalizations also remain high at more than 157,000 a day, although new admissions are starting to decline.
Deaths, which lag cases and hospitalizations, are above 2,000 a day, up 39% from two weeks ago.
Other COVID-19 news you should know:
• Authorities in the northern Chinese city of Xi’an have lifted a monthlong pandemic lockdown on its 13 million residents, the Associated Press reported. The announcement Monday followed the restart of commercial flights from the city the day before. Xi’an has been a cornerstone of the ruling Communist Party’s “zero tolerance” strategy toward COVID-19 that mandates lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing whenever a case is discovered. Xi’an is about 600 miles southwest of Beijing, where the Winter Olympics open Feb. 4.
• People in a Beijing district with some 2 million residents were ordered Sunday to undergo mass coronavirus testing following a series of infections as China tightened controls ahead of the Winter Olympics, the AP reported separately. The government told people in areas of the Chinese capital deemed at high risk for infection not to leave the city after 25 cases were found in the Fengtai district and 14 elsewhere. Nationwide, 56 new confirmed infections were reported in the 24 hours through midnight Saturday. The National Health Commission said 37 were believed to have been acquired abroad.
• France’s new vaccine pass came into force on Monday, AFP reported, and means only those who are fully vaccinated or have recently recovered from COVD can access bars, restaurants and public transport. The new pass replaces the old “health pass” and seeks to encourage unvaccinated people to get their shots and boost the country’s lagging vaccination rate. Earlier this month President Emmanuel Macron caused controversy by saying he wanted to “piss off” the unvaccinated “to the very end.”
• Russia, which is also struggling with a very low vaccination rate, reported another record number of COVID-19 infections in a single day, Radio Free Europe reported. Europe’s worst-hit country registered 63,205 cases on Sunday to beat the previous record of 57,212 on Saturday, government figures showed. About 53% of Russia’s population of about 146 million people have been fully vaccinated.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 rose above 351.9 million, and the death toll is now more than 5.59 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. leads the world with 70.7 million cases and 866,540 fatalities.
The world set a record of more than 3 million COVID cases a day between Jan. 13 and Jan. 19, AFP reported, in the latest sign of how fast omicron has spread.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that 210.3 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 63.4% of the total population.
Some 84 million have received a booster, equal to 39.9% of the fully vaccinated.