Six months on from the first cases of Covid-19 emerging in Wuhan, many of us in Britain will be feeling a mixture of relief and trepidation as England’s lockdown eases. The loosening of restrictions, alongside warmer weather, has brought hope. The UK government is understandably anxious to get society and the economy back on track. This is what we all want, and it’s what scientists are striving to ensure.
Since the virus began to ripple across the world, scientists have worked at incredible speed to deepen our understanding of Covid-19. There have been advances in record time; more than 200 vaccine candidates are already in development, and a treatment identified, dexamethasone, that we now know saves lives. We’ve achieved in months what would normally take decades.
But these huge leaps shouldn’t lull us into a false sense of security. Though national lockdowns have saved many lives, the virus hasn’t gone away. The road to eliminating Covid-19 still contains many unknowns. We don’t yet know how the virus will evolve, how immunity is generated or how long it lasts. We don’t have a vaccine to stop people getting sick, or a range of different treatments to help them avoid the need for hospitalisation, or to prevent their symptoms from worsening if they’re already hospitalised.
Globally, the pandemic is accelerating and spreading into new areas of the US, central and south America, south Asia and Africa. More than 10 million cases and 500,000 deaths, both undoubtedly underestimates, are grim milestones a long way from any final tolls.
Countries that have managed to reduce coronavirus cases are still at risk of rebounds and further waves. In places such as Beijing, North Rhine-Westphalia and Leicester there have been worrying increases in the number of new cases. The US is still witnessing a daily increase in infections. The situation in the UK and US, two countries that have suffered a large number of cases during the pandemic, balances on a knife edge.
Across Europe, and in the UK in particular, governments must take the time to step back and learn from the experiences of the past six months to avoid further crises and cope with a potential second wave. We can assume this second wave will arrive in the winter.
Having a robust system of testing, tracing and isolating delivered across communities, schools, hospitals and care homes will be vital to keeping this virus under control. Data about the spread of the virus must be shared rapidly with relevant public health authorities and communicated to local authorities. Collecting data is not enough. This data must be used to inform a rapid, pre-planned response. And this response needs to be trusted, led by local practitioners and targeted at specific clusters and hotspots to prevent future transmission.
But these aren’t long-term solutions. Securing effective vaccines and treatments for Covid-19 and strengthening public health are the only ways to bring this pandemic to an end. Until every country is protected, we all remain at risk. We will need billions of doses of vaccines and treatments. Nothing on this scale has ever been attempted before, and current manufacturing and distribution capacity is nowhere near enough to deliver such a feat.
Eradicating coronavirus won’t come cheap. The World Health Organization and partners of the ACT-Accelerator, a global collaboration to share the costs and risks of developing vaccine and treatment candidates, have now set the total cost of this effort at $31.3bn. To date, $3.4bn has been raised. This is a fraction compared with the ongoing human and economist costs of coronavirus (according to the International Monetary Fund, the pandemic could cost the global economy an estimated $12tn).
I’ve been impressed over the past few months by the support that governments, industry bodies and philanthropists have shown for collaboration. It’s what has made the remarkable scientific progress that we’ve seen possible. Attempts by national governments to buy up stocks of diagnostic treatments and vaccines in order to protect their own citizens aren’t just wrong on moral and ethical grounds. They are also not smart public health. This disease pays no attention to national borders.
Securing equitable access to vaccines, treatments and tests for all is not altruism. It’s in every country’s best interest to work together to prevent second waves and avoid more deaths and economic hardship. Leaving countries behind would jeopardise the entire endeavour – with consequences felt among high and low-income countries alike.
In the past six months we have learned a huge amount about Covid-19. We are getting better at treating this disease, and mortality rates have come down, but there is no avoiding the enormity of the task ahead of us. The longer we wait, the worse the damage will be. We are still at the start of this pandemic and there is only one exit strategy – interventions that change the fundamentals of infection, transmission and illness. We must learn from the first six months of the pandemic, redouble our efforts and continue to act together.