Covid-19 pandemic far from over, says public health expert on Davos panel

Professor Williams highlighted the impact of long Covid – the long-term effects of a Covid-19 infection – on not just individuals, but also the economy.

Royston Sim

Royston Sim

The Straits Times


Panellists at the WEF also flagged the challenge of misinformation and vaccine hesitancy in boosting vaccination rates. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

January 19, 2023

DAVOS – The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, and countries need to continue vaccinating high-risk groups to protect them against severe disease and death, experts said on Wednesday.

In the United States, 526 people die each day from Covid-19, and the healthcare system is still under stress, said Professor Michelle Williams, dean of faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Speaking at a World Economic Forum (WEF) panel on the state of the pandemic, Prof Williams also highlighted the impact of long Covid – the long-term effects of a Covid-19 infection – on not just individuals and families, but also the economy.

She noted that Harvard economists Larry Summers and David Cutler had estimated long Covid would cost the US some US$3.7 trillion (S$4.86 trillion) due to reduced quality of life, reduced earnings and higher medical spending.

And while vaccines and therapeutics have allowed society to reopen, the healthcare system has to recover too as medical workers are burnt out, she said.

“What I hope people understand is the vaccine not only protects individuals from transmission and severity, but it also protects our health systems,” Prof Williams added.

Mr Seth Berkley, the chief executive of international organisation Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, said that in about half of the lower-income countries today, 53 per cent of the population have got their primary vaccination. Globally, the coverage rate is 64 per cent.

While there has been an ample supply of vaccines since 2022, the challenge is convincing people to get their jabs, he said.

“We are continuing to see new variants, and we have been lucky that we have not had one with very severe disease or one that can escape existing immunity. But there is no reason to think that that may not happen,” he added.

Prof Williams said nine out of 10 Covid-19 deaths in the US could be averted via vaccination, boosters and other measures like mask-wearing when appropriate.

The panellists also flagged the challenge of misinformation and vaccine hesitancy in boosting vaccination rates.

Mr Berkley said vaccine hesitancy is a bigger issue in places where vaccines have been effective in quelling the virus, as opposed to developing countries, where people see the impact of the disease and want the protection.

Misinformation about vaccines has also spread very quickly due to social media, he noted.

Prof Williams said communicating health policies to the public has to be improved to address the waning interest in vaccination.

“In a diverse society, you are going to need to have layers and layers of communicators and different styles and ways of communicating,” she said, adding that governments need to understand the communities they are serving, reckon with the reasons for mistrust, and then “work collaboratively and respectfully in addressing the appropriate message and messenger to really promote the change”.

Panellists (from left) Sasha Vakulina, Maria Leptin, Seth F. Berkley, Michelle Williams and Stephane Bancel speaking at the World Economic Forum on Jan 18, 2023. PHOTO: WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM

On preparing for the next pandemic, Moderna chief executive Stephane Bancel said the vaccine maker is building manufacturing capacity in more countries, including Canada and Australia. That will give it the flexibility to make any vaccine that is needed, he said.

European Research Council president Maria Leptin highlighted the importance of funding basic science.

She said the council had provided funding to two European researchers whose work led to Covid-19 vaccines: University of Oxford professor Adrian Hill, who co-led the research team that produced the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin, whose company helped develop the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“Don’t restrict funding to the fundamental sciences in their full breadth,” she said. “You will never know what we will need for the next outbreak.”

Mr Berkley cited a recent Ebola outbreak in Uganda to highlight the need for more investment in vaccine preparedness.

Uganda had declared an outbreak caused by the Sudan strain of the Ebola virus in September 2022, which affected nine districts and caused 77 deaths out of 164 reported cases. The country’s health ministry declared the end of the outbreak on Jan 11.

Mr Berkley noted that a vaccine candidate for the Sudan strain only got delivered 80 days after the outbreak.

“Had (the outbreak) spun out of control, we would have had a worldwide epidemic or even pandemic,” he said, adding that vaccines need to be in vials, ready for clinical trials. The challenge is that without an outbreak, those vaccines would go to waste.

“The point here is we don’t spend the money because we’re worried about wasting those few million dollars…. I mean, this pandemic has been probably a US$12 trillion to US$15 trillion pandemic. We need, in peacetime, to make those investments.”

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