The head of emergencies at the World Health Organization said Tuesday that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic — deaths, hospitalizations and lockdowns — could be over this year if huge inequities in vaccinations and medicines are addressed quickly.
Dr. Michael Ryan, speaking during a panel discussion on vaccine equity hosted by the World Economic Forum, said "we may never end the virus" because such pandemic viruses "end up becoming part of the ecosystem."
But "we have a chance to end the public health emergency this year if we do the things that we've been talking about," he said.
WHO has slammed the imbalance in COVID-19 vaccination between rich and poor countries as a catastrophic moral failure. Fewer than 10% of people in lower-income countries have received one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Ryan told the virtual gathering of world and business leaders that if vaccines and other tools aren't shared fairly, the tragedy of the virus, which has so far killed more than 5.5 million people worldwide, would continue.
"What we need to do is get to low levels of disease incidence with maximum vaccination of our populations, so nobody has to die," Ryan said. "The issue is: It's the death. It's the hospitalizations. It's the disruption of our social, economic, political systems that's caused the tragedy — not the virus."
Ryan also waded into the growing debate about whether COVID-19 should be considered endemic, a label some countries like Spain have called for to help better live with the virus, or still a pandemic — involving intensified measures that many countries have taken to fight the spread.
"Endemic malaria kills hundreds of thousands of people; endemic HIV; endemic violence in our inner cities. Endemic in itself does not mean good. Endemic just means it's here forever," he said.
Public health officials have warned it is highly unlikely COVID-19 will be eliminated and say it will continue to kill people, though at much lower levels, even after it becomes endemic.
Fellow panelist Gabriela Bucher, executive director of the anti-poverty organization Oxfam International, cited the "enormous urgency" of fairer distribution of vaccines and the need for large-scale production. She said resources to fight the pandemic were being "hoarded by a few companies and a few shareholders."
John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, decried the "total collapse of global cooperation and solidarity" over the last two years, saying it was "totally unacceptable" that only 7% of Africa's population was fully vaccinated.
He also sought to douse the belief among some that vaccine hesitancy is widespread in Africa, citing studies that say 80% of the continent's populations were ready to get shots if the vaccines were available.
The comments came on the second day of the online alternative to the annual World Economic Forum gathering, which was postponed over pandemic health concerns.
In speeches at the event, world leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discussed approaches to the pandemic. He said his country, which quickly rolled out a widespread vaccination campaign, has a strategy of being "at the forefront of the medicines and the vaccines" against COVID-19.
Citing advanced research in Israel, Bennett said, "We want to be first in the world to know how vaccines and the new variants respond to one another."
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said separately that his country had high levels of vaccination because society values protecting the elderly and vulnerable. He plans to keep stringent border controls in place until the end of February.
He said he was trying to balance restrictions with keeping the economy open but that "so-called zero COVID policy against the omicron variant is not possible nor appropriate."
In a separate press briefing Tuesday, WHO's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the omicron variant of COVID-19 "continues to sweep the world" and said there were 18 million new COVID-19 cases reported last week.