People walk in Regent Street, London.
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LONDON – There are growing calls in Europe for Covid-19 to be treated as an endemic disease like the flu despite strong warnings from global health officials that the pandemic is far from over.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is the latest European leader to put his head above the parapet by suggesting it is time to reassess Covid. He called on the EU to discuss the possibility of treating the virus as an endemic disease.
“The situation is not the one we faced a year ago,” Sánchez said in a radio interview with Spain’s Cadena SER on Monday as Spanish schoolchildren returned to their classes after the holidays.
“I think we have to assess the evolution of the Covid towards an endemic disease, since the pandemic we have been confronted with so far,” he added. Sanchez said it was time to open the debate around a gradual reassessment of the pandemic “at the technical level and at the level of health professionals, but also at the European level”.
Sanchez’s comments mark a kind of departure from other leaders on the continent, however, with most of them focusing on the immediate challenge of tackling an alarming number of Covid cases caused by the omicron variant, which is highly contagious but largely appears to cause less severe illness more akin to a cold than the flu symptoms seen with previous variants.
France, for example, has reported more than 300,000 new cases daily in recent days and Germany on Wednesday reported 80,430 new infections, the highest recorded in a single day since the start of the pandemic, according to Reuters.
Sanchez’s comments echo those made in the UK by politicians last year, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson telling the British public they should “learn to live with the virus”.
With that in mind, the UK government has had to keep its cool in recent weeks by failing to introduce new restrictions on the public, despite what Johnson has described as a “tidal wave” of cases caused by omicron.
UK Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC on Sunday the country was on the road “from pandemic to endemic” as government said it could reduce period of self-isolation for those vaccinated who test positive for Covid from seven days to five (as with the latest guidelines in the United States) to mitigate employee absences from the workplace and massive economic disruption caused by Covid.
WHO warns of “endemicity” for now
Many epidemiologists and virologists have said that Covid – which first appeared in China in late 2019 before spreading around the world, causing more than 313 million cases to date and more than 5 million deaths – is here to remain and will eventually become an endemic disease.
This means that there will be persistent but low to moderate levels of Covid in a given population in the future, but the virus is not expected to cause excessive levels of infection or spread from country to country. (which would make it again a pandemic).
The World Health Organization warns that it is, however, too early to consider Covid as an endemic disease. He warned on Tuesday that the global epidemic was far from endemic as he estimated that more than half of people in Europe and Central Asia could become infected with Covid in the next six to eight weeks as omicron is spreading.
Speaking at a press briefing on Tuesday, Dr Catherine Smallwood, head of emergencies at WHO Europe, said it was too early to suggest the world is entering an endemic phase of Covid.
“In terms of endemicity, we’re still a long way off, and I know there’s a lot of talk about it right now,” Smallwood said.
“Endemicity assumes that there is a stable circulation of the virus, at predictable levels and potentially known and predictable waves of epidemic transmission,” she said.
“But what we are seeing right now as we approach 2022 is a long way from that, we still have a huge amount of uncertainty, we still have a virus that is evolving quite quickly and posing new challenges so we are definitely not to the point that you can call it endemic. It could become endemic in due course, but fixing it until 2022 is difficult at this point. “
Smallwood noted that widespread immunization coverage would be essential to move to such a scenario, but so far the conditions for endemicity were not met.
Marco Cavaleri, head of strategy on biological threats to health and vaccines at the European Medicines Agency, the EU’s medicines regulatory body, said on Tuesday that “no one knows exactly when we will be at the end of the tunnel “in terms of the pandemic becoming endemic, but added that progress is being made.
“What is important is that we are heading towards a virus becoming more endemic, but I cannot say that we have already reached that status, so the virus is still behaving like a pandemic,” he said. declared during a press briefing.
“Nevertheless, with the increase in immunity in the population, and with the omicron, there will be a lot of natural immunity in addition to the vaccination, we will quickly move towards a scenario which will be closer to endemicity. . “
The puzzle of boosters
Vaccination against Covid remains uneven around the world. As rich countries roll out booster shots and even discuss the possibility of a fourth Covid vaccine, poorer countries continue to roll out their initial doses and many people are still unprotected by vaccines that have made their mark. evidence to reduce the risk of serious infection, hospitalization and death.
According to Our World in Data, 59.2% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine but only 8.9% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.
However, booster shots are not without their problems, with scientists at the WHO and elsewhere warning that continuous boosters are not a viable strategy.
EMA’s Cavaleri said on Tuesday that “repeated vaccinations at short intervals will not represent a long-term sustainable strategy.”
“If we have a strategy in which we give boosters every four months, we will end up potentially having problems with the immune response … so we have to be careful not to overload the immune system with repeated vaccinations,” he said. he declares.
“And second of course there is the risk of the population becoming fatigued with the continued administration of boosters.” Ideally, Cavaleri said, “if you want to move into an endemic scenario, then these boosters should be synchronized with the onset of the cold season” and be timed to be given with flu shots.
“We will have to think about how we can move from the current pandemic framework to a more endemic one,” he noted.