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WHO envoy says omicron needs to be taken seriously, but there's reason for optimism


What's next for the pandemic in 2022? Before we start to consider that question, let's put things in perspective. Ever since the first known case of COVID-19 was identified in China two years ago, there have been more than 280 million confirmed cases and more than 5.4 million lives lost. The omicron variant is now sweeping through parts of the world, and that's of real concern to Dr. David Nabarro. He's a special envoy on COVID-19 for the World Health Organization, and for him, that's top of mind as he thinks about what lies ahead.

DAVID NABARRO: Although the early information suggests that omicron does not have as much severity as the earlier versions of this virus, I still don't know what's going to happen when it hits older people, people who have not been vaccinated, people with illnesses like diabetes and so on. So as this new, slightly milder variant starts going across the world, I do want to ask everybody, please take it seriously, because if we don't, we might end up getting all sorts of unpleasant surprises.

MARTÍNEZ: If we did, though, had to live with one or the other, omicron versus delta, wouldn't omicron be the lesser of the two evils?

NABARRO: Yes, absolutely. You know, when these kinds of pandemics are evolving, the general pattern that is expected is that the virus becomes more transmissible and less serious over time. And everybody who I speak to who's been studying coronavirus tells me that omicron is a step on the journey towards humanity being able to coexist with this virus, and that in the end, the COVID should become not more serious than the common cold. And so there is a journey to get there, and we are on that journey, and we are hopefully going to be reaching the point where in many parts of the world, the pandemic will cease to be the serious thing that it has been, perhaps by the end of 2022.

MARTÍNEZ: You think we're possibly at the end of this pandemic?

NABARRO: We're not at the end, but we are moving in that direction. In some countries, that will be reached before others, and it will be helped, for example, by having vaccines, which make people much less likely to become seriously ill. And so I think we're moving in that direction.

MARTÍNEZ: Are we fighting two pandemics, the omicron and the delta, in a way?

NABARRO: I think in Europe there is a very major surge due to the delta variant, particularly in continental Europe, with the concern that some people who are immune to delta may still be affected by omicron because omicron has some capacity to bypass and evade the protection of vaccines.

MARTÍNEZ: So there could be some stronger variant around the corner that we're not aware of yet?

NABARRO: I'm not sure. This virus is mutating, and it's mutating actively all the time. So my mind is open, and there could be nastier variants coming. But the key thing is that they will only really gain a foothold if they are more transmissible than the omicron is.

MARTÍNEZ: I want to talk about vaccines now. The WHO, I know, it's trying to coordinate vaccine donations through something called COVAX. How does that really work?

NABARRO: So the COVAX scheme was set up at the request of governments actually in 2020, and the idea was to advance purchases of vaccines from the manufacturers that would then mean that there could be large amounts of vaccine available to the World Health Organization and other international bodies that would then be distributed on a needs basis to different poor countries around the world, financed by money from wealthy nations. But we're in a situation where there's still quite a tight supply situation, and that is always a concern to us in the World Health Organization 'cause the one thing we want is every country in the world to be able to access a fair share of the vaccine, and we're not there at the moment.

MARTÍNEZ: So how do we do that, doctor, because I think COVAX probably failed to factor in human selfishness?

NABARRO: Well, I mean, that's certainly part of it. And secondly, I don't think when COVAX was designed, there was an expectation that there would be a big demand for people to have third doses of vaccines, the boosters, and perhaps even fourth doses. So I want to really appeal to anyone who does have an opportunity to influence those in power just to continue remembering we're not safe until everyone's safe.

MARTÍNEZ: We know the vaccines have different efficacies to the different strains of the coronavirus. Doctor, should we do away with vaccines that are less effective altogether?

NABARRO: But look, imagine you're in a country that's only got access to one of the vaccines that's relatively ineffective. If you don't have other vaccines available, you've got to offer your people something, and a vaccine that is mildly effective is almost certainly a lot better than no vaccine at all. So I would really not suggest that we can do away with any of the vaccines and particularly in poor countries, particularly for health workers and particularly for people who are at risk.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, this isn't the first global disease that you've dealt with, doctor. In 2014, you became special envoy of the U.N. secretary general on Ebola, and back then you said, quote, "the world is going to be different as a result of this Ebola outbreak - much more confident, much more assured and much, much more capable to ensure the well-being of its citizens." Doctor, do you still believe that?

NABARRO: Well, I certainly believe that the way in which the world responded to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, 2015 in West Africa was amazing. And I think that the way in which leaders came together and worked with the communities and the health workers in the affected countries was miraculous, and the result was great. We did not have the whole of Africa affected by Ebola. But, you know, there has been a funny shift between 2015, when I was working on Ebola, and 2020 to '21, working on COVID. And it's this - I find that world leaders are just no longer apparently able to work together and deal with this problem through a global response. We don't have a global COVID program at the moment. And I think that this actually will be something that will be affecting our world for decades to come.

MARTÍNEZ: Dr. David Nabarro, special envoy on COVID-19 for the World Health Organization. Doctor, thank you very much.

NABARRO: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "3 AM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.