The Pandemic Isn’t Over Yet
It’s happening again. At the very moment when we should maintain strict safety measures and aim for the elimination of this virus, governments are loosening restrictions, telling people to remove their masks, and recommending that people gather in crowded indoor spaces. But why? The virus is still here.
The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the USA are at their lowest levels since late March 2020. With more than half of the population vaccinated, it may seem that the worst has already passed .
As we observe what is happening in other countries, however, we believe it is too early to relax. The UK, Chile, Uruguay, Bahrain, and Mongolia have vaccinated more than half of their populations, but their COVID-19 cases are increasing.
In the summer of 2020, many European countries had very few cases, mainly because of the strong measures taken during the spring. Still, in the autumn, many of those same European countries had terrible surges that led to more than ten million cases and more than a hundred thousand deaths.
It is uncertain whether there will be another surge in the northern hemisphere this coming autumn. On the one hand, vaccinations are increasing, which should reduce the number of transmissions. On the other hand, restrictions are being lifted and there are uncertainties regarding new variants and the duration of the protection offered by different vaccines¹.
The goal is to keep R below 1. That is, every infected person, on average, should infect less than one other person. In this way, the total number of cases would be reduced. Why risk new waves, when we know what we must do to reduce the number of cases quickly? We must promote mask-wearing, avoid potential super-spreading events, establish green-zoning, and continue testing, tracing, and isolating. Not until there are a few cases, but several weeks after there are no cases.
Last year, we were slow to react and could not contain the pandemic. This must not happen again. Will we learn from our mistakes? Will we leave our future to chance? In spite of the high number of vaccinations and the reduced number of cases, we must continue using measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission, monitor for new cases, and be able to react quickly to new outbreaks.
We’re asking governments to publish contextually appropriate guidelines for safe reopenings, taking into consideration the current evidence regarding the percentage of the population that should be vaccinated before lifting different measures. It is only with global coordination that we will manage to control the pandemic. Otherwise, a single outbreak of a variant that can circumvent the efficacy of the vaccines could lead us to a situation similar to the one we had in March 2020. Why should we risk more deaths, more lockdowns and deeper economic decline when we have everything we need to prevent them right now?
¹ A risk assessment of variant Delta (VOC-21APR-02, B.1.617.2) by Public Health England released on June 3rd concludes that this variant is more transmissible, leads to more severe infections, and current vaccine effectiveness is reduced: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/991135/3_June_2021_Risk_assessment_for_SARS-CoV-2_variant_DELTA.pdf