SINGAPORE – The world must remain vigilant for the next six months while the coronavirus vaccine is rolled out as it will take time for most of the population to get their vaccinations, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist told CNBC.
“We’re approaching the beginning of the end, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan on Wednesday. “There is still one tunnel we have to go through, however, and the next few months will be very critical.”
Confirmed cases of Covid-19 have continued to increase at an alarming pace, according to Johns Hopkins University. Infections worldwide exceed 78 million.
Pfizer-BioNTech’s emergency vaccine has been approved in countries like the UK, the US and Canada, while the US has also approved Moderna’s.
While we can look forward to a much better picture – certainly until the end of next year – I think the next few months will be difficult.
Chief Scientist of the World Health Organization
Swaminathan said the vaccines will initially protect a very small group of people, who are the most vulnerable and at risk, and that months will pass before the rest of the population can be covered.
“It will take until the end of 2021 to see some level of population immunity in some countries,” she told CNBC’s Street Signs Asia on Wednesday.
“We have to keep our vigil, we have to do everything we know to reduce the transmission and the likelihood of people getting it,” she said. These include public health measures and individual behavior changes.
“While we can look forward to a much better picture – certainly by the end of next year – I think the next few months will be difficult,” she added.
New variety in the UK
Separately, Swaminathan discussed a new variant of the virus that recently emerged in the UK and has been identified in countries like Australia, Denmark, and Italy.
She said it was unusual because it had a large number of mutations and had separated from the average strain.
“What’s even more worrying is that there are about eight mutations in the region of the spike protein,” she added. The virus’ spike protein binds to receptors located on the surface of human cells in the airways, or to the ACE2 receptor in the case of Covid-19. Mutations have been found in the part of the protein that binds to receptors in the airways.
“That’s probably why this virus seems to have an advantage in infecting people, it seems to transmit more efficiently, it seems to infect children who have fewer of these receptors,” she said.
People wear protective face masks while shopping in Union Square Greenmarket on December 4, 2020 in New York City.
Noam Galai | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
However, she noted that the new variant “does not appear to increase clinical severity or make the situation worse” for those infected with it.
The WHO said in a note that the strain “can spread more easily” but that “there is not enough information currently” to determine whether mutations are changing the severity of the disease, the antibody response, or the effectiveness of the vaccine.
Swaminathan said there was “no reason” to believe that current vaccines won’t cover this right now. This is because the vaccines produce a “broad immune response” that is likely to be effective against the new strain.
However, when the vaccines need to be tweaked, this can “simply” be done. “If necessary, it could be done,” she said. “But right now, I think most people believe that the current generation of vaccines should work fine.”