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Covid vaccines working against all variants but may have to update if needed, says WHO chief scientist

Addressing a query on the future of Covid-19 and the new normal, Dr Soumya Swaminathan said that there is a possibility of the disease becoming endemic.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas | Pune |
Updated: April 11, 2022 10:00:30 am
covid-19, covid cases india, india coronavirus, covid lockdown, who, who on covid lockdown, Covid-cases second wave, India news, indian express newsDr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the World Health Organisation. (File)

Covid vaccines are working against all variants of SARS-CoV2 virus in preventing severe disease and death. However, we may have to redesign our vaccines to adapt to new variants, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist with World Health Organisation (WHO), said on Sunday.

“This is just in a worst case scenario where the virus recombines, mutates or changes in a way where it may lead to overcoming the immunity that we have with the vaccines today. In such a case, we may have to update our vaccines – along the lines of influenza vaccines  every year. A committee from WHO meets twice a year and picks the most widely circulating strains that should go into the influenza vaccine,” Dr Swaminathan said, while speaking as the chief guest at the Think Again Conclave lecture series organised as part of BITS, Pilani’s 40th edition of APOGEE, the institute’s annual technical extravaganza held from April 7-10.

“We don’t know if that will be required for Covid at this point of time, as our current vaccines are working against existing variants of concern. In future, if we need to, we may have to change the composition of vaccines and we need to be prepared for that.. Hence, sequencing and surveillance are important,” the WHO chief scientist said.

She spoke of two likely scenarios — one in which Covid is endemic. “This does not mean that it becomes mild or disappears but it stays in the human population like other infections — influenza, respiratory viruses, malaria and tuberculosis. They kill a lot of people but we cannot expect to eradicate them. However in this case, we have good vaccines and with high vaccination coverage we can achieve a level of population immunity that can prevent most people from getting sick. There will be vulnerable people — particularly the elderly, those with underlying illnesses who will get sick when Covid transmission is high and some may die. However we have the tools — diagnostic tests, vaccines and drugs which must be started early to be effective. Continued surveillance is a must. There is more data emerging on after effects of Covid in terms of higher risk of cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease and diabetes and our health systems must be prepared to deal with that,” Dr Swaminathan said.

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Then, there could be periodic localised surges . However, the effort should always remain on reducing transmission  by wearing masks and adopting Covid-appropriate behaviour, especially in crowded and low ventilated places.

Speaking on the learnings from the Covid pandemic, Dr Swaminathan said science has evolved a lot and urged that knowledge gained on vaccine platforms can be used to make vaccines against TB and dengue. “What we have also learnt from Covid is that all countries were unprepared for the pandemic. We had under-invested in public health. Luckily, thanks to decades of investment that happened in research and development in mRNA, other platforms, we were able to deliver vaccines in 325 days – something which no one could have predicted. Investment in science pays off and every country needs to think about that,” Dr Swaminathan added.

The scientist further cautioned that non-communicable diseases are likely to be a bigger problem. Diabetes, hypertension, lung diseases are on the rise and efforts will have to be taken to address risk factors and deal with primary causes. Building back better would also entail working at a cycle that has wellness at its core and not just absence of disease, Dr Swaminathan said. She also appealed for a need to focus on education. “The pandemic has impacted children who have been out of school for two years. They will need help and support to catch up on these two years which hopefully do not become a permanent difficulty in their future career path,” Dr Swaminathan said.

Leveraging the adoption of digital tools and technologies during the pandemic can help accelerate progress in both the health and education sectors, she added.

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