It’s now more than a year since the severity of the coronavirus pandemic first made itself clear, plunging most the world into lockdown and pushing countless nations to the brink.
Here in Australia, that all feels like a distant memory now, thanks to virtually no cases of COVID-19 and a rapid return to normal, or at least a new but familiar version of it.
However, a leading expert has issued a stark warning “the pandemic is nowhere near finished” and the worst may be yet to come, with infections “surging” around the globe.
And even with a closed international border, Australia can’t be assured we’ll dodge it, as past leaks from hotel quarantine have demonstrated.
Speaking at a gathering of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh in the United Kingdom on Wednesday, Dr David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s special envoy on COVID-19, said new variants of the virus were wreaking havoc.
“Each week we have seen four and a half million cases being reported and know those are an enormous underestimate,” Dr Nabarro said.
“And we are still seeing a really significant number of deaths – nearly three million. What I want to stress is that the pandemic is surging forward everywhere.”
So far, three variants of coronavirus have seen epidemiologists sound the alarm, but Dr Nabarro warned it’s inevitable more and more new strains will develop.
The warning came as scientists made a devastating revelation – the deadly P1 variant that originated in Brazil, responsible for a surge in serious illness and deaths there, is now itself mutating.
Experts examining the strain fear it is rapidly changing in ways that could make it resistant to vaccines.
Horrific new waves sparked by variants
Right across the globe, in the developed world and developing nations, there’s a resurgence of COVID-19 cases sparked by new variants of concern.
They’re more infectious and cause a more severe illness that lasts longer and is considerably more likely to be fatal.
Unlike the original virus, the strains are seeing young and otherwise healthy people fall ill in large numbers.
Take India, which has recorded more than 180,000 new cases this week alone, bringing its total infection number to a staggering 13.9 million.
At least 172,000 people are dead, but virtually everybody agrees that figure is grossly conservative.
“This sheer tsunami of cases has already overwhelmed the healthcare infrastructure in the state,” Dr Shashank Joshi, part of the COVID-19 task force in Mumbai, told The Sun.
“This time we are seeing younger people between 20 and 40 getting seriously affected and even children are now being hospitalised.”
Scientists fear the rapid rate of infection and spread in India will see potentially devastating mutations of the virus emerge.
Meanwhile, Brazil is in the midst of a devastating surge in new cases, illnesses and deaths, and the country’s public health institute has discovered mutations of the local P1 variant.
“We believe it’s another escape mechanism the virus is creating to evade the response of antibodies,” researcher Felipe Naveca told Reuters.
Vaccines developed to fight COVID-19 target the spike protein of the virus, which it uses to enter and infect cells in the body. Alarmingly, it’s in the spike that Brazilian scientists have discovered mutations.
“This is particularly worrying because the virus is continuing to accelerate in its evolution,” Dr Naveca said.
The P1 strain is already at least 2.5 times more infectious and is more resistant to antibodies.
Its discovery in parts of Europe and Asia, as well in dozens of American states, has sparked panic.
Those regions are already grappling with the horrific impact of another mutation, the B117 variant, known as the UK strain.
It has been attributed to a surge in new cases in parts of the US and is now the most dominant strain in the country, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed last week.
That’s concerning because the strain is between 50 and 70 per cent more infectious than the original strain.
It has already torn through large parts of Western Europe and is behind dramatic surges that sparked renewed lockdowns, including in France.
Things will get worse before they get better
The UK has turned a very sharp corner in recent months, crushing the curve of new cases, illnesses and deaths, thanks to a combination of tough lockdowns and the rapid rollout of vaccines.
But Dr Nabarro said the hard-hit country is bucking the global trend.
He also warned against complacency, saying a localised outbreak could quickly spread like wildfire, causing a new crisis.
The world is pinning its hopes on the escalated deployment of vaccines bringing the beginning of the end of the crisis.
“I have to stress that I am not 100 per cent sure that the world is going to find it too easy to vaccinate itself out of this pandemic,” Dr Nabarro said.
The reason for that is the emergence of these new variants of concern that can escape the protection of current vaccines.
For example, a third variant of concern – the B1351 strain, or the South African mutation – appears to break through the defences of the robust Pfizer jab.
But yesterday, Moderna announced it has developed an experimental ‘booster’ of its vaccine that early testing shows is successful in suppressing the B1351 strain.
There’s every chance future mutations could be even more resistant to antibodies in vaccines, leaving the world to play a dangerous game of catch-up.
“With very large amounts of virus around, there will be a regular arrival of new variants that are particularly troublesome,” he said.
Dr Nabarro added: “That variant problem is going on and on and on as long as we have got a lot of virus around.
“For anybody to say that they are safe because they are vaccinated is more hope than probability.
“We should expect more variants to emerge and escape vaccine protection, that is inevitable, and so globally we should anticipate that this pandemic is going to go on roaring in parts of the world where there are large numbers of people infected.”