We may not know what the future holds, but the reality is the world will have to learn to live with the coronavirus.
“It’s very unlikely that we’re ever going to be able to get rid of Covid. Like most respiratory viruses, it’s probably going to be worse during cold months and less so during warm,” said Timothy Brewer, professor of epidemiology at the University of California LA Fielding School of Public Health, during a CNBC interview.
Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, said it is time for the world to learn to live responsibly with Covid-19 as it does with other illnesses such as cardiac disease and cancer.
American business magnate, software developer, investor and philanthropist Bill Gates said that Covid-19 would become an endemic disease in most places. “Although it is currently about 10 times more lethal than flu, vaccines and antivirals could cut that number by half or more. Communities will still see occasional outbreaks, but new drugs will be available that could take care of most cases and hospitals will be able to handle the rest.”
Myambo said the frenzied response by countries including the UK, the US, Japan, France and Canada after the detection of the Omicron variant would not be sustainable in the long-term.
“We should expect mutations and we should not overreact to them.
“Perhaps at the beginning of the pandemic, panicky leaders could be excused for closing their borders for a couple of weeks but the reactionary retreat of countries like New Zealand and Australia into a sealed-off cocoon is just not an option for South Africa,” she said.
“Closing borders is ethically problematic and economically catastrophic. It is not sustainable and should not be repeated.”
So far, five variants of concern have been detected with Omicron being the latest to be added to the list by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and more variants are likely to be discovered, according to Heather Zar, professor and director of the School of Child and Adolescent Health at the University of Cape Town.
“Omicron is likely to cause a lot of infections, but early data suggests this is largely a mild illness — except in unvaccinated, susceptible people — probably as many people have had natural infection and or are vaccinated,” she said.
“I think we need to be very careful to wear masks, implement non-pharmacological interventions, limit social interactions et cetera. Also we still have a way to go with vaccination — vaccination is one of the most important interventions to contain the pandemic, and everyone who is eligible should be fully vaccinated.”
According to genomic surveillance data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the Omicron variant is the dominant variant circulating in South Africa.
Yet, despite a spike in infections, the WHO Africa region reported that data indicates that illness from this variant is less severe, with an intensive care unit occupancy rate of only 6.3%, which is lower than it was when the Delta variant was the dominant variant in circulation.
Vaccines are crucial
Scientists say that because Omicron won’t be the last mutation, vaccines are critical in minimising the effect of these upcoming variants.
The Omicron variant escapes antibody immunity induced by the Pfizer vaccine, but considerable immunity is retained in people who were vaccinated and previously infected, according to a recent study by the Africa Health Research Institute.
The institute’s director, Professor Willem Hanekom, said in a statement that although clinical implications still needed to be determined, it was likely that vaccine-induced protection against infection and disease would be the result.
Pfizer also released preliminary findings from a study that looked at the effectiveness of its vaccine on the Omicron variant. Data showed that three doses of the vaccine neutralised the variant, and two doses provided protection against severe disease but had reduced neutralisation.
Several studies have found that booster shots were necessary for adults over the age of 60.
Zar said the country must prioritise those who are at highest risk of developing severe disease. She said a booster vaccine is needed for people with underlying comorbities, older people and healthcare workers.
The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority has approved Pfizer booster shots for individuals aged 12 and older.
The country has a low vaccine uptake at 43.8 per 100 individuals.
A study found that only 40% of African adults support mandatory vaccination.
“Currently, South Africa’s challenge is the demand for vaccines instead of supply and that is a good place to be,” said Benjamin Kagima, a senior research officer at the Vaccines for Africa Initiative at the University of Cape Town.
Since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on 28 November that mandatory vaccination would be discussed, companies and higher learning institutions have increased their momentum in making this a reality.
The University of Cape Town was one of the first to announce its intention to make vaccination mandatory for all students and staff members in the 2022 academic year.
The Sol Plaatje University is the latest to sign off on mandatory vaccination of all employees and students working on its campus.
Insurance giant Discovery was one of the first companies to make vaccination mandatory for its employees. Since the announcement on 3 September, the employee vaccination rate climbed from 22% to 94%, and is expected to reach 97% in early 2022.
Insurers such as Discovery, Old Mutual, Momentum Metropolitan and Sanlam will be charging higher premiums to unvaccinated clients.
Financial publication Nikkei Asia reported that, from January 2022, vaccination will be mandatory for workers in Singapore. Those who aren’t vaccinated have to show a negative test result before they can enter their workplaces — and they must pay for their tests. Unvaccinated people will also no longer receive free Covid-19 treatment offered by the government.
People in Singapore already have to be vaccinated if they want to enter shopping malls and eat at restaurants.
Based on the current trend of governments and businesses calling for or considering making vaccination mandatory, it is possible that many of these calls will be implemented as soon as 1 January next year.
Mandatory vaccination is one of the World Health Organisation’s recommended three-step approach for mid-2022.
The WHO has called for governments to revise their national strategies, policies and priorities as needed to harness emerging evidence to maximise the effect of existing, modified and new vaccines.
Vaccines for Africa
Currently just 6.8% of the population on the African continent is vaccinated.
The director of the Africa Centre for Disease Control, John Nkengasong, said the low vaccine uptake in Africa might leave governments with “no choice” but to make Covid-19 vaccination mandatory.
A report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, titled Covid-19 in Africa: A Challenging Road to Recovery, said that health and economic recovery will only be possible if there is a significant increase in the vaccination rate in Africa.
The continent currently imports up to 99% of its vaccines.
The recent confirmation by Aspen that Johnson & Johnson had granted it the intellectual property and technical rights to manufacturing the Covid-19 vaccine in South Africa will contribute to ensuring that Africans have access to Covid-19 vaccinations.
The Biovac Institute — a bio-pharmaceutical company in Cape Town and the result of a partnership with the government in 2003 to establish local vaccine manufacturing capability — is also expecting to start manufacturing the Pfizer vaccine in early 2022, giving Africa a chance to catch up with the rest of the world possibly by the middle of next year.
“Aspen finally manufacturing the vaccines in Africa is a positive step and momentum can be built to improve on that,” said Kagima, of the Vaccines for Africa Initiative.
He added that if some countries had more people vaccinated than others it wouldn’t assist the suppression of the pandemic.
“As long as the other country has got 0% of its population vaccinated, no one is safe. It would be naive to not have a global approach towards the vaccinations of populations,” he said.