We are starting the second year of life with the deadliest biological enemy the world has seen in a century. COVID-19 has so far killed more than 2.6 million people worldwide and continues its deadly crusade. Developed nations have found a temporary respite from the virus in the form of vaccines, but as long as poorer nations wait for the medicine, the virus remains a global threat.
While medicine never rules out anything, a scourge like COVID was barely on most doctor’s radar, said Infectious Disease Specialist, Dr. Timothy Jenkins. “We’ve talked a lot about pandemics,” said the Denver Health and Hospitals physician but Covid-19 was “quite a surprise.” To date, more than 530,000 Americans have died from the virus, the highest death toll of any country in the world. Worldwide, nearly three million COVID deaths have occurred.
With as many as eight vaccines now approved, the world now has the weapons to fight back. But the fight will entail its own separate and unique challenges, ranging from political to logistical.
There are 48 countries on the continent of Africa and six island nations. According to the World Health Organization, (WHO) by the end of February only a handful of African nations had received the medicine. While distribution is paramount, inequality is stark. For example, in a population of 5.7 million, at least one in five Coloradans have received at least one shot. On the entire continent of Africa, WHO estimates only 0.3 percent of the total population had been vaccinated.
A failure to vaccinate enough of Africa’s 1.6 billion population and South and Central America’s combined population of 500 million could create a longer timeline for the coronavirus or its variants or mutant forms of the virus. “If we don’t get new vaccines out and new variants emerge it could decrease effectiveness of vaccines,” said Jenkins. “We would have to develop new vaccines and boosters…it could lead to potential of ongoing transmissions even in the United States.”
While the continent of Africa will be a challenge, South and Central America represent their own difficult task. South America has recorded approximately 15 percent of the world’s COVID cases, but just over 2 percent of all global vaccinations, according to Oxford University. The combined regions have recorded more than 700,000 coronavirus deaths.
China and Russia are scrambling to get vaccines into Mexico, Central and South America. China, maker of Coronavac, has a huge pharmaceutical manufacturing capability as well as an insatiable appetite for a presence in South America. The same is true for Russia, manufacturer of the vaccine Sputnik V. The Russian vaccine is already being administered in Argentina, Bolivia, and Mexico.
Mexico has signed up for all of the various vaccines and many of its citizens have already received the Russian shot, Sputnik. The country has experienced nearly 2 million COVID-19 infections and suffered more than 200K deaths. It now ranks third in the world, just behind Brazil and ahead of India, for coronavirus deaths. Like his counterpart to the north, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador downplayed the virus as hospitals became overwhelmed and deaths continued to mount. Also, like the former American president, Obrador also contracted the virus but recovered.
In developing coronavirus vaccines in such a short period of time, science pulled off what might genuinely be called something between magic and a miracle. Beginning in January 2020 China released a genome of the virus. With a blueprint to work from, scientists around the world immediately began work on developing a vaccine. In the U.S., Congress allocated $9.5 billion dollars for vaccine development and on April 29th, Operation Warp Speed, a public-private venture for the development, manufacture, and distribution of the vaccine was announced. On December 11, 2020, the FDA announced emergency approval for the first vaccine.
But having a vaccine or even several does not mean an end to the coronavirus if herd immunity is not established. Herd immunity occurs when the majority of a population becomes immune to a disease making its spread from person to person unlikely. Some variables standing in the way of herd immunity include resistance to getting vaccinated for religious or political reasons or a basic lack of vaccines. In African, a handful of countries have refused shipments of the vaccine altogether. Compounding things, is the fact that people and groups in every country still cling to the myths that vaccines cause everything from blood clots to strokes to death.
The vaccines have given the world hope that the coronavirus can be defeated. The virus, which caught the world off guard, and was bungled by both developed and undeveloped nations, has wreaked havoc in every time zone on earth. The U.S death toll has averaged 44,000 coronavirus deaths each month for the last year. New Zealand, another developed nation, has recorded only 26 COVID-19 deaths in the same period.
While COVID-19 has shocked the world into a new viral mindset, doctors know that it certainly will not be the last microbial threat to the planet. “I think there’s no way we could prevent the potential for any future pandemic,” said Dr. Jenkins. “What has driven this home is that we need to be better prepared” for the next one. Having the requisite supplies of PPE---personal protective equipment---would be a good start, he said. “We know and understand that masks can be a helpful mitigation strategy. I think all of these things should dramatically help us when we encounter the next virus.”
Interestingly, said Dr. Jenkins, this season’s influenza statistics are well below what was expected. “We are seeing almost no influenza…very few cases compared to what we’d see in a typical influenza season.” He attributes it---or much of it---to the protective methods that have become common in the era of COVID: masks, hand sanitizing and frequent hand washing.