Coronavirus: WHO says it's probably too late to wipe out COVID-19

A World Health Organization spokesperson has claimed COVID-19 is here to stay, with the opportunity to eradicate it now likely long gone. 

And that means a return to pre-pandemic normality is off the cards, according to Margaret Harris. 

"The numbers we're seeing - the cases, the deaths - are higher than at any other time in the pandemic," Dr Harris told The AM Show on Wednesday.

"We saw last week, it just took a week to do numbers that it took six months to do last year... I was looking at the numbers and thought, 'that can't be right'." 

While much of the world suffered a massive wave of the virus in January, India had almost completely wiped it out - prompting authorities to loosen restrictions. That, combined with the emergence of the local variant with genetic mutations believed to increase its infectivity, has led to a near-vertical explosion of cases on the subcontinent. 

Official figures show world-record level numbers of infections now at over 300,000 a day, but some experts believe there could be millions every day going undetected. The more infections there are, the more chances the virus has to mutate - possibly finding ways to avoid vaccines.

"It's a very, very intense conflagration," said Dr Harris. "Over the last week we saw over 2 million cases reported to us and more than 15,000 deaths. What's probably more important is the increase - a 50 percent increase in cases and 90 percent increase in deaths. So the trajectory of their pandemic right now is straight up."

Margaret Harris.
Margaret Harris. Photo credit: The AM Show

The virus behind COVID-19 is known to scientists as SARS-CoV-2. The '2' is there because it's similar to the original SARS virus that killed 774 people in the early 2000s. The reason we're not still dealing with SARS-COV-1 is that it was wiped out. 

SARS was much deadlier than COVID-19 - killing about one in 10 people it infected - but nowhere near as infectious, with patients becoming symptomatic very quickly and able to be isolated. No vaccine was ever developed, but it was contained using localised lockdowns, strict screening at airports and other public health measures.

The last-ever SARS case was reported in 2004, just a year-and-a-half after the virus was first discovered. We're at about the same point in the COVID-19 pandemic, with the first cases of a mysterious illness being reported in China in November 2019 - yet according to Worldometer, there are 19.2 million people presently infected with the disease, not including the likely millions of cases we don't know about.

"There is so much virus now in our population we've probably missed the time where we can get rid of it completely," said Dr Harris. 

"In the early days you can push the pathogen back into the animal kingdom by limiting its opportunity to transmit from person-to-person, but now we've seen such huge numbers we would expect this is a virus that will be with us."

Rethinking what's normal

Unlike with SARS, there was a massive international push to develop vaccines for COVID-19 - the most successful appearing to be based on mRNA technology that wasn't available in the early 2000s. 

Dr Harris says the vaccines will help return us to some sort of normality in the long run, but some things - like packing into small venues for concerts - should stay in the past.

New Zealand made international headlines at the weekend, with the wildly popular musical group Six60 performing to 50,000 fans at Eden Park on Saturday night - probably the biggest concert any band in the world has performed in the past year. 

The virus behind COVID-19 spreads particularly well indoors where ventilation is poor, so an outdoor gig might not be so bad, Dr Harris said, but expects future gigs to perhaps not be so crowded. 

"We all love those things and we all love to be together, but the trick is to be together safely... We will have big events, but different events. Events where we jammed ourselves into places were probably not good not just from an infectious disease perspective, but also disasters and stampedes... 

"There are all sorts of reasons why we can do those things better... Things like also how we manage the ventilation in our buildings, how we've crowded ourselves into ever-smaller spaces. 

"All those things we will need to change - this won't be the last infectious pathogen that jumps from the animal kingdom to the human kingdom. We're encroaching on nature more and more, so we've got to get better at how we live."

India's devastating outbreak was likely amplified by a number of large religious festivals and political rallies held in recent months. Dr Harris said many Indians likely thought the risk was low.

"The problem - as many people have seen around the world - is there is this kind of idea it's all going to be over and we're going to go back to what we did before. 

"I think New Zealand has worked out that doesn't work. You've set a great example with the many things you've done and the care you've taken - gently opening up, not rushing into anything and understanding that we are facing a new world."