Can’t lower our guard when Covid-19 is evolving: Poonam Khetrapal Singh

Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of the WHO South-East Asia Region, talks about the pandemic and whether we are witnessing a second wave of the disease worldwide.

With Covid-19 cases rising rapidly, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of the WHO South-East Asia Region, has clearly said that there is a possibility to get a vaccine by the end of the year 2020.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Guardian, Dr Singh spoke at length about efforts being made to develop a vaccine, and the options available to protect people from the Covid-19 infection. Excerpts from the interview:

Q. Can the world beat the Covid-19 pandemic anytime soon?

A: The world is still in the midst of the pandemic. We do not know how long it will last. Till such time there are safe and effective vaccine or medicines for Covid-19, we must continue to fight this virus using public health measures that we know work — that is test, track, isolate and treat. People should be encouraged to follow Covid-appropriate behaviour such as proper wearing of masks wherever recommended, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and cough etiquette. These are our best defenses against Covid-19, and they work as seen in countries that have curtailed virus transmission using these measures.

Q. Do you think there is a second wave of the disease in the world?

A: Nine months into the pandemic, Covid-19 cases globally are still rising. Some countries that were able to curtail transmission, are witnessing a surge once again. Clearly, we need to remain vigilant. We cannot let our guards down. We should continue our efforts to suppress Covid-19 transmission.

Q. What precautions are needed to keep ourselves protected from coronavirus? Even many frontline warriors including healthcare workers have been affected by it worldwide?

A. Practising physical distancing, hand hygiene, cough etiquette are best ways to protect against Covid-19. A healthy diet and physical activity are also a must for physical and mental wellbeing.

It is true that an alarming number of healthcare workers have been infected with Covid-19, and WHO is closely following this issue through our global networks. Some of the factors that are contributing to infections in health workers are the lack of PPE or the proper training to use it.

The WHO has been addressing this issue since the beginning. Globally, around 14% of Covid-19 cases reported to the WHO are among health workers, and in some countries it can be as much as 35%, although data are limited.

Health workers are facing tremendous challenges globally — including healthcare-associated infections, such as violence, stigma, psychological and emotional disturbances, illness and even death.

Furthermore, working in stressful environments makes health workers more prone to errors which can lead to patients’ harm.

It’s important that we prioritise safety for healthcare personnel — both physical and mental — because let’s also not forget that it’s only when they are safe that the patients they are caring for will be safe too.

Q. Do you think for post Covid-19 special clinics are required where patients can be examined extensively?

A. We are assessing the impact of the disease on people, including those who survived complexities and severities. Managing these issues would surely be part of good patient follow-up care and health service response.

Q. When do you think the world will get a vaccine? Russia has also shared data in the medical journal The Lancet about vaccine trials?

A. So far there is no vaccine to prevent Covid-19, but work is underway across the globe to find one that is effective and safe. Of the over 200 vaccine candidates in development, over 10 are being tested in humans, and a few are entering Phase III trials soon. The WHO is working with companies and sponsors, as well as with Gavi, CEPI and others through the ACT Accelerator to expedite vaccine testing, as well as the scale-up of manufacturing so that countries will have access to sufficient doses if and when a vaccine is available. Globally, investments are being made in manufacturing of promising candidate vaccines even before the Phase III trial results are in. There are many unknowns in this process. It is hoped that if a successful vaccine is found by the end of the year, there will be enough doses available for countries by the end of 2021 so that those in priority populations, who choose to be vaccinated, have access to them. The WHO will propose solutions on a fair and equitable distribution of vaccines, for member states to consider.

Q. How long will this virus remain?

A. It is very hard to predict at this stage when the virus continues to evolve and we see an increase in cases globally.