Most nations have rolled back steps to contain COVID-19. But the virus continues to kill. Many experts are frustrated governments are not doing more.

We are giving up on COVID But has it given up on the world

Immunization, conceptual illustration (Photo by: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via AP Images)

Airlines have stopped requiring people to show negative COVID-19 tests to travel. Countries are lifting mask mandates. Around the world, people are headed back to schools, offices and recreation as if the coronavirus pandemic was over.

Two and a half years into the pandemic, more than 6 million people have died, and people are dying still, but COVID-19 no longer dominates the headlines.

News coverage often focuses on the strict requirements imposed in China, with lockdowns still horrifying the outside world, rather than on the continued rampant spread of new variants of the virus elsewhere.

The world may largely be done with COVID-19, but COVID-19 is far from done with the world. Midway through 2022, yet another new sub-variant of Omicron flashed around the globe, counting among its victims even the most highly vaccinated of people.

One of the highest-profile patients was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease specialist and medical adviser to the U.S. White House. Fauci announced last month that he had become infected as a fresh Omicron sub-variant was found to evade both the immune protection offered by vaccines and that provided by previous natural infection.

“This pandemic is changing, but it’s not over. We have made progress, but it’s not over,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said recently, as WHO reported rising case counts in 110 countries.

COVID-19 vaccination rates never hit targets around the world.

It’s hard to know what — or whom — to blame. It’s almost certainly a combination of factors.

Vaccination rates never began to hit global targets, even in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom that have plenty of vaccines. Only two-thirds of the eligible U.S. population is fully vaccinated, although experts estimate it would take a 90% or even higher rate of immunity to stop an airborne, highly transmissible virus such as COVID-19 from spreading. Globally, 68% of the eligible population has been immunized.

It’s not impossible to vaccinate a large percentage of a population. Chile, Malta and Portugal all have 95% vaccination rates. Smaller nations such as Samoa and Tonga are at upwards of 99%, according to the Our World in Data project at Britain’s Oxford University.

Some of the vaccines have been extremely effective, providing 90% or better immunity from symptomatic disease, even if the protection wanes relatively quickly. But the new variants and sub-variants are demonstrating that even being fully vaccinated and boosted may not be enough. People with four doses of COVID-19 vaccines are falling victim to the newest Omicron sub-variants.

It’s impossible to know if a faster, higher vaccination rate globally would have stopped or slowed COVID-19. It never happened.

Because viruses cross borders quickly as people do, it’s not enough for one country or one region to vaccinate its populace. As long as the virus is circulating among people somewhere, it will continue to mutate and evolve, and it will, as Omicron has demonstrated, threaten even vaccinated people.

WHO still advises people to protect themselves against the virus.

So why bother to vaccinate?

One big reason is it saves lives. Even if vaccination doesn’t produce an impenetrable shield against infection, it does boost the immune system enough to protect most recipients against more severe disease and death.

A team at Imperial College in London, well known for expertise in this area, calculated that even the imperfect vaccination efforts of the past two years had saved 20 million lives globally.

“Despite this, more lives could have been saved if vaccines had been distributed more rapidly to many parts of the world and if vaccine uptake could have been strengthened worldwide,” they wrote in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Vaccines can keep people out of the hospital. At pandemic peaks, hospitals around the world were overwhelmed, meaning not only that COVID-19 patients died who could have been saved, but so did people suffering from heart attacks, cancer, injuries and other diseases.

Still, the global response to a fresh wave of infections appears to be one big yawn. Not only have vaccines fallen off the radar screen — so have the other measures known to help control the spread of disease: mask use, improved ventilation, hygiene and distancing.

The World Health Organization still advises people to take what’s called a layered approach to protecting themselves and others, including getting vaccinated, mask use, testing, handwashing and avoiding crowds.

Many equate precautions with lockdown.

But pandemic measures are applied by politicians in most of the world, and it has become clear that elected leaders are reluctant to advocate for unpopular measures after weeks or even months of strict lockdown in many countries — including restrictions that made international travel either difficult or impossible.

Even in countries that took few pandemic measures — the United States, for instance — educators and parents worry about the effects of limited personal contact on children and adults alike.

Now, many hear the phrase “pandemic precautions” and think “total lockdown.”

Britain eased masking, vaccination and testing restrictions earlier this year. “The relaxation in requirements is thanks to the success of the UK’s vaccine and booster rollout,” the government says on its website, although less than 75% of the population is fully vaccinated. The next line is a dead giveaway about the true motivation.

“It means that eligible fully vaccinated travellers arriving in the UK no longer need to take any COVID-19 tests — resulting in the UK having one of the most free-flowing borders and open societies in Europe,” it reads.

Canada still requires masks on planes and trains but has eased other requirements, and remains among the countries with high transmission rates.

France loosened restrictions while advising regularly airing out rooms to flush any lingering virus from the air.

Some disease experts are frustrated.

Perhaps the biggest free-for-all is in the United States, where mask use has plummeted and where vaccine skepticism has frightened state and local leadership from recommending shots in many areas.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that just about everyone get a COVID-19 vaccine. The latest group to get the go-ahead includes infants as young as 6 months. Yet only about a third of kids 5-11 in the United States have received a dose of the vaccine, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The CDC has withdrawn its requirement for air travelers to show evidence of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a flight to the United States, although it does still require non-citizens to show proof of vaccination.

As the newest variants burn around the world, infecting people who have managed to elude the virus until now, governments under pressure from business and the public are unlikely to impose or recommend unpopular measures. They’re not pouring money and research into new and better vaccines that might help defeat the constant rise of new variants.

That is frustrating to infectious disease experts, including Dr. Eric Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California.

Topol argues that governments are giving up just at the time they should be doubling down on measures that could make a difference, such as encouraging mask use and hygiene, improving vaccination rates and accelerating research into better vaccines and treatments.

“It’s frankly sickening to watch this virus continue to outrun us, knowing we are so damn capable of getting ahead of it,” Topol wrote in a recent blog post.

Three questions to consider:

  1. How have politics and public health clashed during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  2. Why have global vaccination rates been so slow?
  3. How has human behavior helped fuel the pandemic’s spread?

Maggie Fox has been reporting on health and science for more than 25 years and is currently a contributing writer to the Fuller Project and host of the One World, One Health podcast. She has covered conflict, politics and other international events from London, Hong Kong and Beirut. She has covered the cloning of Dolly the sheep, Ebola epidemics, stem cell technology, vaccine controversies and other stories for Reuters, CNN, National Journal, Medscape, STAT and NBC News. She lives outside Washington, DC.

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Educators' CatalogWe are giving up on COVID. But has it given up on the world?