October 4, 2022
Maria Van Kerkhove
COVID-19 Health Operations and Technical Lead, World Health Organization
Senior Vice President of Emerging Issues, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
Over two years into the coronavirus pandemic, the state of the world has changed dramatically. Though many countries are seeing a return to “normalcy,” COVID-19 continues to have a global impact.
As part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Health Forward: The Future of Global Health program, Michael Carney, Senior Vice President of Emerging Issues at the Chamber, spoke with Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 Health Operations and Technical Lead at World Health Organization (WHO). Their conversation touched on the state of the pandemic in late 2022, including predictions on when it will end and how we can best prepare for the future.
While the Pandemic Has Evolved, It Isn't Over Yet
With lockdowns and other measures lifted in many countries, businesses have reopened their doors, and travel and in-person events are picking back up again. Despite this shift, Van Kerkhove notes that the pandemic is not over; it is just in a different stage.
“We’re in a much better position than we were in the beginning, even a year ago ... but we still have millions of cases being reported each week [...and] deaths are around 8,000 to 15,000 per week,” she explained.
Van Kerkhove added that the global pandemic stage of COVID-19 will end someday — the “when” is the uncertain part.
“We will live with this virus; the virus is not going anywhere ... but COVID-19 is a disease that we should be able to manage,” stressed Van Kerkhove. “We need to live with COVID-19 responsibly; we’re not there yet.”
With Variant Uncertainty, We Must Scale Our Response Accordingly
In addition to waning immunity over time, the presence of current and potential future variants of the COVID-19 virus could lead to another wave of infections.
“Some [variants] have an immune escape, which means our immunity from past infection or from vaccination is not as strong,” Van Kerkhove explained. “So [the coronavirus vaccines] don’t work as well [in preventing infection, but] they still work incredibly well at preventing severe disease and death.”
“We don’t know if these further variants that will emerge will [be] more or less severe, and that uncertainty means we have to be ready to scale up and scale down our response,” Van Kerkhove added.
Amid this uncertainty, Van Kerkhove emphasized the importance of vaccine equity, especially among high-risk populations: adults aged 60 and up with underlying conditions, immunosuppressed people, and frontline health workers.
“We can tackle this; we just need the agility, the patience, [and] the vigilance,” said Van Kerkhove. “That’s hard right now because people are tired of talking about this — I’m tired of talking about it, too — but we have a responsibility to do what we can to keep people alive now.”
Public Health Challenges Require Everyone’s Support
In helping lead WHO amid a global pandemic, Van Kerkhove and her team gained valuable insight into the challenges of preparing for a public health crisis.
“The world was unprepared, and we remain unprepared, unfortunately,” Van Kerkhove admitted. “We’re in a better position because the world has gone through a trauma, and we’ve changed some systems; we just need to sustain that going forward.”
While public health leadership plays a critical role in navigating these global crises, Van Kerkhove encourages each of us to consider how we can contribute.
“In the role that you play, what are you doing to be better prepared to deal with the current crisis?” she posited. “Because, unfortunately, there will be [a next time] — but it doesn’t have to be like this, and we can mitigate these impacts.”