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WHO chief scientist: We are at a 'critical juncture'

November 2, 2020

Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organization, shares her thoughts about surging COVID-19 cases around the world and how governments should stem the tide of the second wave.

A COVID-19 patient in Belgium
Image: Francisco Seco/AP Photo/picture alliance

DW: Should people be alarmed by this second wave we see in parts of Europe?

Soumya Swaminathan: The incidence of new COVID-19 cases has continued to accelerate, while the incidence of new deaths has remained relatively stable. 

As of October 28, over 43 million cases and 1.16 million deaths have been reported globally, with 2.8 million new cases and over 40,000 new deaths reported over the past week.

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We are at a critical juncture in this pandemic, particularly in the northern hemisphere. The next few months are going to be very tough, and some countries are on a dangerous track. Too many countries are seeing an exponential increase in cases, and that's now leading to hospitals and ICUs running close to or above capacity.

We urge leaders to take immediate action to prevent further unnecessary deaths, to prevent essential health services from collapsing and to prevent schools' shutting again. This is not a drill.

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan
The Indian scientist Swaminathan has over 30 years of clinical and research experienceImage: picture-alliance/Keystone/AFP/F. Coffrini

Is this second wave stronger than predicted?

No country is out of the woods, and second waves are not only possible, but highly likely, anywhere in the world. Those that have been hit hard the first time round can get hit hard a second time.

But the countries that do better in the second wave are those that learned from the first wave.

They have taken steps to reduce transmission, to keep themselves at the ready and remain vigilant, to quickly identify and adequately isolate the cases, to carry out contact tracing and isolate and support during the quarantine period and to support communities and their health systems.

We must continue to break chains of transmission. This is not the time to let down your guard.

In India, what do you think of the assertion from an expert government panel that COVID-19 has passed its peak in the country?  

India's population size and diversity bring together unique challenges, but we are seeing unprecedented efforts being made at various levels to confront the pandemic. 

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India has been significantly ramping up its testing capacity, and timely, effective clinical management of the patients in critical care through holistic measures has been instrumental in keeping the case fatality rate low.

Compared to the number of people who are being infected and detected, the number of people who are dying from this disease has consistently shown a downward trend, both in India as well as globally.

India's recovery rate among COVID-19 patients has improved to 77% and is demonstrating continuous progress. The number of patients recovering has been on a steady rise over the past several months.

There are a lot of signs of hope on the horizon, but we cannot let our guard down. We must not get complacent. 

Ninety percent of the world's population is still susceptible to this virus, and we are all still very much at risk of this pandemic progressing and expanding into other areas and vulnerable populations. We must continue with the public health measures to stop the virus from spreading and to break the chains of transmission.

You have said two vaccines will be available early next year, do you foresee distribution problems?

There is reason to be optimistic. Currently, there are almost 200 vaccine candidates in development, of which 44 are in clinical development and 10 in phase 3 trials. 

This many vaccine candidates, combined with a variety of vaccine platforms and technologies (both traditional, such as inactivated whole virus or viral vectors and new ones, which are being used for the first time, such as RNA and DNA vaccines), increase our chances to find a safe and effective vaccine.

While we expect that one or more of those vaccine candidates would be safe and effective in protecting against the infection, we do not yet know which one(s). Only phase 3 trial results can tell that.

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Effective vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics are vital to end the pandemic and accelerate global recovery. But these lifesaving tools only work if they are provided to the most vulnerable equitably and simultaneously in all countries. 

COVID-19 cannot be beaten one country at a time, so we must ensure their fair distribution and access for all countries, irrespective of their income.

The COVAX global vaccine facility is a mechanism through which all countries can equitably access safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines as quickly as possible and at an affordable price. With 184 countries and territories, most of the world participates in this unprecedented global effort.

Read moreEU joins WHO's coronavirus vaccine alliance, offers €400 million investment

The WHO has developed with our member states a fair allocation mechanism for COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX facility.

Built on the human rights principle of equity and epidemiological evidence, it is a strategy to bring the future vaccines to highest-priority populations in all countries and so rapidly contain the COVID-19 pandemic, save lives, protect health care systems and restore global economies.

Soumya Swaminathan is the chief scientist at the World Health Organization.

This interview was conducted by Murali Krishnan.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11