WHO Chief Scientist: ‘Four to Five-Year’ Struggle Ahead Before Containing COVID-19

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Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) chief scientist, attempted to temper expectations of a “crystal ball” timeline for the containment of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus on Wednesday, expressing that vaccines are not guaranteed and the pandemic may even take a turn for the worse.

“I would say in a four to five-year timeframe we could be looking at controlling this,” the expert said to the Financial Times’ Global Boardroom webinar on Wednesday. She emphasized that there is “no crystal ball” when it comes to the possible threat of the highly contagious disease in the future. 

Swaminathan told the remote audience that while the world’s top scientists are seeking to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, which “seems for now the best way out,” she noted there are “lots of ifs and buts” regarding the production, distribution, safety and efficacy of such a drug. 

Furthermore, there’s also the possibility that a mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus could render a vaccine ineffective.

The global health agency official’s comments offer a sobering perspective on the pandemic in the wake of vaccine-related comments from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday during a video conference with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. 

“We have good candidates now … The top ones are around seven, eight. But we have more than a hundred candidates,” Tedros said, as reported by the Star Tribune. Considering his previous projection of a 12 to 18-month waiting period before scientists could provide a safe vaccine, the disparity between timetables appears to allow quite an extended period between the vaccine’s development and the steps that would actually be needed to control the novel coronavirus. 

Swaminathan’s reality check continued during the Wednesday webinar when she also highlighted that the global pandemic could “potentially get worse” as leaders in countries such as the US are being forced to weigh the economic and public health risks in lifting restrictions originally put in place to mitigate the impact of the novel coronavirus. 

Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, took his fellow officials’ warnings a step further earlier this week when he discussed COVID-19’s “vicious cycle” of economic and public health disasters and argued that the novel coronavirus “may never go away,” CNBC reported

The WHO official asserted that nations will have to adopt “a new normal” while awaiting progress on vaccines and related treatments for the novel coronavirus

“We should not be waiting to see if opening of lockdowns has worked by counting the cases in the ICUs or counting the bodies in the morgue. That is not the way to know something has gone wrong,” he said. “The way to know the disease is coming back is to have community-based surveillance, to be testing and to know that the problem is coming back and then be able to adjust your public health measures accordingly.”

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