• Sunday, November 27, 2022

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Covid in some ways will be there forever but worst is over: Dr Ashish Jha, White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator

By: Mohnish Singh

COVID-19 in some ways will be there forever but the worst days of the pandemic are “absolutely” over, Dr Ashish K Jha, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, said on Tuesday.

Speaking at the 20th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Jha said given the high levels of immunity in the population due to both vaccination and prior infections, “even if we see surges and variants the worst of this pandemic should be behind us”.

“Covid is not over and in some ways it will be with us forever and we just have to continue to manage it but if the question is are the worst days of covid behind us then my answer is absolutely, it is,” he said.

With variants cropping up at regular intervals, Jha acknowledged that they are a concern as a very rapid evolution of this virus is being seen over the time.

“…the speed at which SARS-CoV-2 is evolving is really remarkable. And there are a variety of reasons why this is happening – the primary one is we have so much immunity across the world due to vaccinations and prior infections that is putting evolutionary pressure on the virus to find a way around that immunity wall,” he said.

Highlighting the emergence of more and more immune evasive variants of the virus, he said, “But the good thing is as the virus is changing so is humanity. We are able to do things like update vaccines and we are able to do things like keep up with the virus…So while it worries me that the virus continues to do what it does, it reassures me that we as humanity can respond to it and are not powerless in terms of how we deal with it.”

On there being surges from time to time whenever there is a new variant, Jha said for a little bit longer there will be more of these ups and downs in terms of surges and over the time the virus will settle into more of a seasonal pattern where it will act a bit more like influenza virus.

“I do believe there will come a time when this will be very seasonal as many other coronaviruses are. We are still seeing surges and waves that is because of rapid virus evolution you get these new variants which are very immune evasive and causes mini waves but there is so much immunity in the population that does limit how big a wave can be…the process will slow down over time and we will get to a more steady state,” he said.

He also hoped that the virus would become less lethal over time but warned against assuming that is given, considering “that viruses can really surprise us”.

On COVID-19 vaccines, Jha said coronavirus vaccines have been a remarkable achievement. Whether it’s Covishield or Covaxin in India or Pfizer or Moderna or Astrazeneca in Europe, all vaccines were made in an extremely short time and they have turned out to be life-saving.

Reason why deaths have been so low in many places around the world is because of the high levels of vaccination, he said, underlining India’s vaccination campaign was most impressive.

“And if you think how india turned around its situation after Delta…Delta was of course awful…but then you saw a massive ramp up of vaccine production through Serum and elsewhere and we saw a phenomenal vaccination campaign. It was one of impressive vaccination campaigns in the world throughout the pandemic and kind of in history which left the Indian population in a much better shape. Similarly, the level of vaccination has left US population in better shape,” he said.

Jha said they were first generation of vaccines and now the world is seeing the second generation of vaccines which are getting updated against Omicron and early data shows these vaccines are better at dealing against Omicron because they are targeted towards Omicron.

The question that is out there in the vaccine world is that are we going to keep doing this every year and keep updating vaccines, he said, adding, “I remind people, first of all, if that’s where we land that’s okay. We do that with the flu vaccine.”

“My hope is while we may have to do that for a year or two we can start building vaccines that are far more resilient against evolving virus…right now vaccines are best at preventing serious illness and decent at preventing infection but that doesn’t last as long we want ii to…we should be striving for much better robust vaccines but the truth is that’s probably a year or two away,” he said.

On the importance of communication and curbing misinformation during a pandemic, Dr Jha stressed the significance of scientists and political leadership communicating with the public for changing the public behaviour in terms of wearing masks and following social distancing and hand hygiene.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of investment in public health and the importance of data, and the need for public health and political leaders to communicate openly and clearly with people.

“An information vacuum, where the public is not told about aspects of the virus, is fertile ground for misinformation,” he said.

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