For much of the world, 2022 marked the beginning of the end of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The shift was palpable after several failed re-opening attempts in many countries. The arrival of the Omicron variant in late 2021, with its ability to re-infect people and the record spike in Covid cases that followed, initially stoked scientists’ worst fears and confounded predictions for a return to normalcy.
Yet in the ensuing months, a more stable scenario played out. Emerging variations of the coronavirus so far remain closely related to Omicron, without radically altering its impact.
Vaccination is largely protective against severe disease and death for many people, and a new generation of booster shots targeting Omicron variants was introduced. The medical community also has an improved arsenal of treatments for those who fall ill.
“It’s almost as though the virus has somehow gotten stuck in this evolutionary valley,” said Dr Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
As a result, in many places, masks came off, schools resumed in-person classes, holiday travel and large celebrations became possible once again.
“The pandemic is over,” US President Joe Biden said in September, referring to the changing behaviour of Americans.
Global health officials, however, cautioned the public against letting its guard down while acknowledging a change in outlook.
No end yet
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has yet to declare an end to the Covid public health emergency.
“We are not there yet. But the end is in sight,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters shortly after Biden’s remarks in September.
Why it matters
For many experts, 2023 will bring Covid’s full impact on global health into sharp focus.
Data show that the pandemic has disrupted all kinds of healthcare, from childhood immunisations to cancer screenings. Life expectancy in some countries has fallen, while mental health concerns have skyrocketed. And the impacts of long Covid are just being recognised, while gaps in national healthcare systems have been exposed as never before.
The question, experts say, is whether these changes will persist, and what kind of policies can be implemented in response.
Better future response
The WHO is hashing out a pandemic treaty to govern a better response to future outbreaks.
Covid will continue to require vigilance for people with comprised immune systems, and more broadly when cases surge. In such instances, people should consider putting masks back on in crowded places and should stay up to date on available vaccinations.
Infectious disease experts remain on alert for a new coronavirus variant that could dramatically undermine vaccines and treatments as gaps in Covid testing and vaccination rates “are continuing to create the perfect conditions for a new variant of concern to emerge,” Tedros said at the beginning of December.