Coronavirus pandemic

Human behaviour is a key factor in curbing the pandemic

There are now over 12 million cases of Covid-19 globally, with more than 550,000 lives lost. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Global outlook on the Covid-19 pandemic ranges from cautious optimism in countries that handled the outbreak well to gloom in places that did not.

The bottom line is, the pandemic is not going to end any time soon. If anything, it is accelerating. And even if it moderates, we will have to live with the virus as a fact of life for the foreseeable future.

There are now over 12 million cases of Covid-19 globally, with more than 550,000 lives lost, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

A vaccine could in theory end the pandemic - but only if it is effective, made in large quantities and properly distributed across the globe. And there are other issues to consider: will it require one dose or multiple doses and how much immunity will it confer and for how long.

None of the answers to those key variables will be known until a vaccine is actually developed.

According to a WHO-compiled landscape of vaccine candidates, there were 17 vaccines in clinical evaluation as of June 29. But while the race is on for countries and companies, the most optimistic predictions see the successful development of the vaccine at the end of this year at the very earliest.

But that would be unprecedented in the history of vaccines. In truth, a vaccine is not guaranteed, by the end of this year or by this time next year.

We have no other choice but to adapt and the terrible question countries opening up to get their flat-lining economies to perk up have to answer is this: How many dead people can political leaders and society as a whole tolerate?

Human behaviour, then, is the deciding factor in the trajectory of the pandemic.

The Sunday Times spoke to several experts, as well as the WHO, on these issues. Here are some of their responses:

IS THIS AS BAD AS IT GETS OR IS IT GOING TO GET WORSE?

"The situation is out of control and we are on a path to absolute tragedy," said Ms Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer who has written books on pandemics.

"Most countries are simply flailing about, trying desperately to balance the economic costs of mitigation against the social and human costs of loss of life and illness," she told The Sunday Times.

"And they are doing so in a callous, often brutal fashion - so governments open up as soon as they think they've seen the epidemic go backwards a bit and they've seen a downturn, only to once again see infection spread and have a resurgence."

In an e-mail, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said: "The outbreak is accelerating and we have clearly not reached the peak.

"It took 12 weeks for the world to reach 400,000 cases of Covid-19; over the last weekend alone, more than 400,000 cases across the globe were reported. There have now been over 12 million cases and more than 550,000 lives have been lost. National unity and global solidarity are most important and are the only road out of this pandemic."

WHAT IS THE OUTLOOK FOR THIS TIME NEXT YEAR?

"Things will only get worse in the United States before they can potentially get better," Dr Rebecca Katz told The Sunday Times. Dr Katz is professor and director of the Centre for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Centre in Washington.

She said: "But even places that have almost no cases know that this is not over and done with. The challenges are going to continue to shift. Even when we do have a medical countermeasure we are going to have to figure out the process for equitable distribution, the supply chain, and who gets it first and whether it is effective or not.

"Around this time next year, we may be in the middle of the equity battle - who gets it - and potentially supply chain challenges, like whether we have enough glass, and the preliminary answer to that, is no, we don't."

Moreover, according to Dr Michael Urban, a senior lecturer at the Allied Health Department of University of New Haven, the more the coronavirus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate - which makes developing a vaccine especially challenging.

"It's going to come down to human behaviour, whether people wear masks or not, whether people go to work when they are ill, because they need to survive," Dr Urban said.

"If there is a vaccine… and it actually targets the virus and it hasn't mutated and people get vaccinated, we'll still have cases but… I would hope to see a lot fewer. But if we don't have a vaccine and with human behaviour being the way it is, then potentially we could be where we are now or even worse."

WHAT ABOUT HERD IMMUNITY?

"I don't think we understand enough about immunity and this virus," said Dr Katz. It is not even clear how much immunity one has, if one has contracted the virus and recovered.

Added Mr Jasarevic: "We expect that most people who are infected with Covid-19 will develop an antibody response that will provide some level of protection. What we don't know yet is the level of protection or how long it will last."

Ms Garrett told The Sunday Times: "We have to think the United States, we have to think Brazil, we have to think Russia, we have to think India. Between those four nations, the world is in real danger."

She warned: "We're only in the beginning of this. It's not about waves, it's about human behaviour and human behaviour goes in cycles. People get scared, they lock down, they get tired of being locked down, they go back out. They get scared again, they lock down again. And it's as much about whether or not there's leadership and governance as it is about very personal behaviour."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 12, 2020, with the headline Human behaviour is a key factor in curbing the pandemic. Subscribe