The World of International Organizations

WHO warns even deadlier pandemic may surface

A U.S. vaccine center in Baltimore gives shots to health and emergency workers (AN/Baltimore County Government)

World Health Organization senior officials ended the year on a somber and cautionary note with a warning on Monday that a future pandemic more severe than the coronavirus may hit one day if the world is not ready.

Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, said the COVID-19 pandemic may not turn out to be “the big one” if another virus comes along and the global health community has not done more to prepare for it.

“The next pandemic may be more severe,” he told the U.N. health agency’s final virtual news briefing of 2020. “Let’s honor those we’ve lost by getting better at what we do.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for the pandemic, said some of the nations that are faring best in the pandemic are those that dealt with previous outbreaks, not necessarily those that are the wealthiest.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that a full year has passed since WHO learned there were cases of “pneumonia with unknown cause” in Wuhan, China, from a bulletin by health authorities and ProMed.

“Science is at the core of everything we do and it has advanced at a blistering speed this year,” he said in a statement, referring to the breakneck pace of vaccine development. “And then the shot that rang out around the world was the release of positive vaccine news from multiple candidates, which are now being rolled out to vulnerable groups.”

But he, too, warned that “only if countries are looking and testing effectively will you be able to pick up variants and adjust strategies to cope.”

Precautions emphasized

WHO’s chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, indicated that quarantines may still be needed for quite a while after national vaccination programs are launched around the world.

That is because, she said, people who receive COVID-19 vaccines will still need to take health “precautions” until the world achieves some level of herd immunity, which is what happens when a large portion of a community becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of that disease from person to person unlikely.

“I don’t believe we have the evidence on any of the vaccines to be confident that it’s going to prevent people from actually getting the infection and therefore being able to pass it on,” she said.

The precautions are significant since airline carriers are hoping the vaccines will revitalize international travel. Carriers such as United, JetBlue and Lufthansa are working to institute CommonPass, a health app in development with the support of international organizations such as the Commons Project and World Economic Forum.

The app would be used to verify passengers’ test results and vaccinations, and to provide confirmation codes that would allow them board some international flights. But more than airlines would likely make use of the technology.

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