Worst over, focus must now be on Long Covid, robust jabs: Dr Ashish K Jha
Speaking at the opening session of the 20th HTLS, Ashish K Jha outlined the hits, such as the global scientific collaboration, and the misses – “the worrying persistence of misinformation” – two-and-a-half years after Sars-CoV-2 arrived, and how he sees the pandemic’s next phase.
The world is now safely on the other side of the pandemic and the worst of Covid-19 should be behind us, the US government’s topmost official on the coronavirus response has said, citing widespread immunity in the global population.
Speaking at the opening session of the 20th Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Dr Ashish K Jha outlined the hits, such as the global scientific collaboration, and the misses – “the worrying persistence of misinformation” – two-and-a-half years after Sars-CoV-2 arrived, and how he sees the pandemic’s next phase.
“Obviously, Covid is not over, and it will continue to be with us for some more time. But if the question is, is the worst over? My answer is absolutely. Given how much immunity is in the population, even if we see surges and new variants, the worst of the pandemic should be behind us,” the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator said, while speaking to HT’s editor-in-chief R Sukumar.
Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health but on leave for the duration of the White House assignment, said new variants of the Sars-CoV-2 remain a concern. “We are seeing very rapid evolution… But the good news is that as the virus is changing, so is humanity.”
For some time, the world will continue to see “ups and downs” of repeated waves, Jha said, predicting a strong chance that the coronavirus will settle into a seasonal pattern like the flu. “It’s a new virus in the human population, it is evolving and our immunity is evolving. There will come a time when it will become very seasonal.”
But, Jha added, that does not necessarily mean the virus cannot evolve to become lethal, like it did with the Delta variant. “There is plenty of evidence across history of viruses that evolved to become more lethal.”
On the immediate future, Jha said, as the virus evolves, so will vaccines need to, citing early data from Omicron-adapted doses that seem to perform better.
“Question is, do we need to keep updating them every year? If that’s where we land, that’s okay because we do that with the flu vaccine every year and it’s not a big deal.”
Over the longer term, the world needs to strive for better vaccines, especially those that are variant-proof vaccines and prevent an infection, not just a serious illness. “I think the current path we are on is good but in my mind, not good enough. We should be striving for much better and robust vaccines,” he said, foreseeing at least a year or two’s wait. “For now, prepare for an annual shot.”
On Long Covid – the scarcely understood subject of why some people suffer illnesses long after their infection – Jha outlined two specific areas that need to be worked on. First, he said, was to separate the various Long Covid effects, clinically and scientifically. “We are getting better but we still have a long way to go. It’s different for different people, for some, it is a persistent virus, for others it is immunologic, and for others still, it is an injury from their infection.”
Once you separate these, you have to start targeting therapies, he said.
Second, he added, was to have larger studies on Long Covid. “Smaller ones can lead to spurious findings.”
On tackling new outbreaks, Jha opposed the so-called “Zero Covid” approach. “When you don’t have any tools, any vaccines, any medicines, or good diagnostic testing, being more aggressive in controlling the virus makes a lot of sense. But that’s not where we are,” he said.
Zero Covid is best characterised by China’s approach to the pandemic: the country locks down cities and neighbourhoods with new outbreaks.
Among the early proponents of leaving schools open when most countries were shutting down, Jha reiterated his position: “If you get hit by a bad wave, schools should be the last to close and the first to open, but in the context of where we are right now, I don’t see any reason for schools to be shut in the first place.”
Jha, widely recognised as one of the most authoritative and influential voices in the early days of the pandemic when information was generally scarce and riddled with inaccuracy, flagged misinformation around science as one of his biggest worries, even as he pointed out the global scientific collaboration as one of the most formidable tools in the world right now.
“We live in an information landscape with so much misinformation. Ultimately, science is only as good as making people’s lives better as you can engage people to take vaccines, to take precautions,” he said, adding that it worries him to think if that problem is not solved, it could jeopardise the world’s ability to fight future health crises.