“We’ll have another pandemic. It will be a different pathogen next time,” founder of the US computer company Microsoft Bill Gates told the network CNBC in February 2022.
At that time, the severity of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic had been abating, as large swathes of the world population had already developed relative immunity.
But Gates’ prophecy seems now to be coming true. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is meeting periodically to discuss whether the pandemic, which appeared three years ago and has thus far killed 6.7 million people worldwide, still poses a threat and remains a global health emergency that requires an international response.
It has also warned that the latest variant of the coronavirus is the most contagious since the outbreak of the pandemic.
Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus put this flatly when he said recently that “Covid-19 remains a global health emergency.” Albeit conceding that “90 per cent of the world’s population has some form of immunity, which would reduce risks of entering into a new state of emergency,” he made it clear that even with the end of the emergency, “the virus causing the pandemic will not disappear completely” and that we will now probably “have to live with it.”
This is particularly true in winter, a season that sees the spread of cold and influenza viruses since people take shelter in closed places, windows are closed, and ventilation is reduced, all factors that can help the spread of viruses.
Rachel Lau, a researcher at the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London, explained to the BBC that “the waves of the spread of the coronavirus may be seasonal” and it probably peaks in the winter season. This is “for some unclear reasons that may be related to the weather, human behaviour, the nature of the virus itself, or all those reasons combined,” she said.
Mohamed Sedki, a professor of respiratory diseases and head of respiratory disease control at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “winter marks the outbreak of all respiratory viruses since mixing is greater in schools and universities and the low temperature allows a greater chance of infection.”
“Eliminating this virus from human and animal reservoirs is highly unlikely,” Ghebreyesus said, but “mitigation of its devastating impact on morbidity and mortality is achievable and should continue to be a prioritised goal.”
Although many people would perhaps now shrug off the threat of the coronavirus and have already abandoned many precautions, scientists insist that all scenarios are still possible now that China has reopened its borders despite the fact that the coronavirus has been ripping the country apart and has infected “some 900 million people as of January,” according to statistics provided by Beijing University and quoted by the BBC.
Although the Beijing report “estimates that 64 per cent of the country’s population has had the virus,” government officials in China insist on keeping a lid on the real numbers, even while announcing a zero-coronavirus U-turn in policy and reopening borders.
The WHO has been critical of China for having stopped reporting Covid fatalities, saying that the Chinese government “was heavily under-reporting Covid deaths”.
“International health experts have predicted at least a million Covid-related deaths in China this year,” the BBC wrote. “Beijing has officially reported just over 5,000 deaths since the pandemic began, one of the lowest death rates in the world.”
Although many countries are imposing new Covid-19 measures on Chinese travellers in response, the very fact that China is shrouding what is happening within its borders in secrecy raises a red flag that the 2020 scenario could recur.
The number of countries that have banned entry to Chinese travellers has now reached 17, with concern escalating about the rise in infections in the country.
The first Arab country to ban their entry was Morocco, which announced a ban on the entry of travellers coming from China from 3 January until further notice to “avoid a new wave of infection” with the coronavirus. Italy was the first EU country to tighten restrictions on Chinese tourists.
In the EU, Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden have so far also stepped up rules on travellers from China in response to the rising number of cases. Elsewhere, Australia, Canada, India, Israel, Malaysia, Morocco, Qatar, South Korea, Taiwan, and the US have introduced additional measures for arrivals from China.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a federal agency, said US citizens should reconsider travel to China, Hong Kong, and Macau.
While the EU countries have so far failed to agree on a coordinated approach to the changing Covid-19 situation, the bloc has “strongly” encouraged a pre-departure test requirement for travelers. Other recommended measures for flights arriving in the EU from China include people wearing a mask onboard flights, the enhanced cleaning of aircraft, the vaccination of crew members, the random testing of arrivals, the sequencing of positive tests, and waste-water monitoring at airports to detect infection levels and new variants.
Egypt’s Cairo International Airport received the first flight carrying a group of Chinese tourists since the outbreak of Covid-19 on 20 January. China’s Ambassador in Cairo Liao Liqiang Liao expressed his appreciation to Egypt for “not imposing any restrictions on travellers from China to Egypt”.
The fact that a new outbreak of the coronavirus is now occurring in China remains a source of curiosity. Alaa Hosni, a consultant in chest diseases, said it was possibly due to “the very large movement of people travelling and entering and exiting the country” in China.
“The Chinese work everywhere in the world, and the spread of the infection among them has been strong due to the country’s dense population,” he commented.
SITUATION IN EGYPT
Egypt is also densely populated, but, as is the case in many parts of the world, people have now largely abandoned wearing masks and are often giving little attention to WHO precautions.
The Ministry of Health has been monitoring positive cases, but people have largely lost interest in Covid-19 since mortality rates have slumped.
However, as Hosni made clear, “the real number of infected people remains largely unknown since most people do not resort to hospitals unless they reach a serious stage in the illness.”
“The number of those who catch the disease may be large, but the number of acute cases that I personally receive in my clinic does not exceed 10 per cent of the cases I received in 2020,” he told the Weekly.
“The new variants, whether Omicron or Delta, are definitely weaker than the original virus, but people still need to be cautious since the current variant in China may spread across borders and be transmitted to us.”
Mohamed Awad Tageddin, the presidential adviser for health affairs, has recently declared that the number of people infected with “the coronavirus remains low in Egypt”.
“It is influenza that is rife,” he said.
In the same vein, Hossam Hosni, head of Egypt’s Scientific Committee to Combat Coronavirus, recently told the press that the comprehensive treatment protocol established by the committee had helped to reduce the occurrence of serious complications and accelerate recovery in patients.
Today, according to Hosni, about 98 per cent of all cases of coronavirus infection recover.
Jihan Al-Assal, a professor of chest diseases at Ain Shams University in Cairo and vice chairman of the Scientific Committee for Coronavirus Control at the Ministry of Health, told the Weekly that “the situation in Egypt is stable compared to the shocking developments in Europe and China, and there is no cause for concern.”
Essam Gouda, a professor of chest diseases at Alexandria University, agreed that there have been few individual cases diagnosed as coronavirus-positive. These also all belonged to the Omicron variant, which normally does not last for longer than five days, he said.
The consensus remains, however, that precautions must be taken because viruses can change rapidly, and they may be encouraged to do so by the opening of the Chinese borders.
REVISITING CONSPIRACY THEORIES
The new surge in the virus, the huge number of fatalities in China, and the ambiguities surrounding them have all brought the issue of whether the virus was manufactured as part of a biological warfare plan that went wrong back to the fore.
A study entitled “Endonuclease Fingerprint Indicates a Synthetic Origin of SARS-CoV-2” that has been circulating on the Internet has recently reignited conspiracy theories. “Our results show that this virus is 99.9 per cent synthetic and that it may be a manipulated version of a natural virus,” researcher Valentin Bruttel, one of the three authors of the study, said.
Bruttel obtained a PhD in immunology in 2022, and made the statement to the German news channel N-TV.
“To prevent future pandemics, it is important that we understand whether SARS-CoV-2 spilled over directly from animals to people, or indirectly in a laboratory accident,” the study says. “The genome of SARS-COV-2 contains a peculiar pattern of unique restriction endonuclease recognition sites allowing efficient dis- and re-assembly of the viral genome characteristic of synthetic viruses.
“Here, we report the likelihood of observing such a pattern in coronaviruses with no history of bioengineering. We find that SARS-CoV-2 is an anomaly, more likely a product of synthetic genome assembly than natural evolution.”
In the same vein, Russia has been making similar accusations referring to “the existence of US-supported biological laboratories for the manufacture of the coronavirus.” Such accusations were also part of official statements by Chief Spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defence Igor Konashenkov, who announced that documents had been found pointing to US funding of military biological laboratories in Ukraine.
The laboratories, he claimed, had used “pathogens from birds, bats, and reptiles,” adding that “there are documents that show experiments were carried out on bats with the aim of establishing a mechanism for the secret spread of deadly pathogens.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhu Lijian has joined forces by saying that the US allegedly has 336 laboratories in 30 countries under its control, including 26 in Ukraine alone. He demanded that the US should report on its biological military activities at home and abroad and subject itself to multilateral investigation.
But many fingers of accusation have been similarly directed towards China itself, claiming that it was behind the coronavirus as part of plans for biological warfare.
Many have joined forces with British researcher Ings Dalger and Norwegian virologist Berger Surson, who have accused Chinese scientists of having developed the Covid-19 virus in a laboratory in Wuhan in China.
The accusations and counter-accusations thus mainly revolve around the US, China and Ukraine, but so far there is no clear evidence confirming that the virus was actually manufactured in a laboratory.
“The origin of SARS-CoV-2 remains largely unresolved,” wrote another study published in the medicalexpress.com. “Experts from the University of Wuerzburg and the University Hospital [in Germany] have reviewed the preprint on the origin of SARS-CoV-2. In summary, the analyses presented in the study do not provide sufficient evidence for the authors’ conclusion that SARS-CoV-2 is of synthetic origin.”
Meanwhile, mutations in the virus continue to occur. “Mutations occur as a natural process because viruses develop by themselves,” Sedki explained. “When a mutation is too strong for the immune system to confront, strong infections occur in the lungs, as was the case in the first outbreak of the coronavirus.
“Currently, however, we find few cases of pneumonia since the body has generally already recognised this fierce attacker via its imprint in the immune system and can now easily combat it. Besides, the virus seems to be mutating to weaker rather than stronger variants.”
A story in the Indian Express newspaper by Alind Chauhan concurs. “Scientists have realised that imprinting acts as a database for the immune system, helping it put up a better response to repeat infections,” Chauhan wrote. “After our body is exposed to a virus for the first time, it produces memory B cells that circulate in the bloodstream and quickly produce antibodies whenever the same strain of the virus infects again.”
Conspiracy theories about biological warfare are directly linked to the huge profits made by companies manufacturing vaccines to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
The Arab Planning Institute (API), a non-profit regional organisation based in Kuwait, has published a study by senior expert Mohamed Amin that reveals the huge profits made by pharmaceutical companies in the West due to the weakness of the pharmaceutical industry in the Arab countries and Africa, which have had to rely on importing vaccines from them.
According to Amin’s study, titled “The Covid-19 Pandemic and Drug Security in the Arab Countries”, the “developing countries import 70 per cent of their medications from abroad, while most of the equipment and resources for the manufacture of locally produced medicine in a country like Nigeria are mainly brought from companies in China and India.”
The study adds that with the continuation of the Covid-19 crisis and the emergence of new mutated viruses, continued dependence on foreign countries remains a major concern as long as the developing countries are unable to manufacture medicines and vaccines to meet a large part of local needs.
Companies licensed to produce coronavirus vaccines have made huge profits, to the tune of billions of dollars, for example. The Pfizer-BioNTech alliance was the “biggest beneficiary” of this, as it was the first to obtain a license to produce a Covid vaccine in Europe and the US.
According to estimates by US brokerage Morgan Stanley, which specialises in financial and investment services, Pfizer achieved an estimated profit of about $19 billion from selling its vaccine in 2021, plus $975 million in 2022, all in addition to the company’s annual revenues, which have tripled since 2019.
News related to Moderna’s development of its own anti-Covid vaccine contributed to raising the company’s market value to $62 billion, after its shares jumped by 700 per cent in 2020.
The Swedish-British AstraZeneca and US Johnson & Johnson vaccines were later approved in the EU, but the US did not license the AstraZeneca vaccine despite its approval in other countries.
The huge profits made by the companies producing vaccines sparked public doubt about their effectiveness, side-effects, and whether they could be part of a huge investment plan. This fuss escalated on social media when billionaire Microsoft founder Gates was misquoted as saying that the vaccines were ineffective in misquotes seen by nearly a million Twitter users.
However, according to Reuters, “Gates’s words have been taken out of context. He did not say the Covid-19 vaccines are not working very well; rather, he said preparation for the next pandemic will likely include research on vaccines that stop virus transmission, something they do not do now.”
The vaccines do not stop the transmission of the disease, but rather mitigate its severity. But that does not mean they are not effective.
“Scientists have estimated that the Covid-19 vaccines saved 140,000 lives in the US up to May last year. In Britain, health experts said in June that vaccines had saved 27,000 lives in England alone. Research is also underway into new types of vaccines that could potentially block transmission as well as offering health protection.”
CONTROVERSY ON RE-VACCINATION
Whether people should get fresh booster shots of the vaccines remains an issue of debate.
Previous vaccinations do not work on the new variants, but many feel reluctant to get re-vaccinated since the new variants are no longer fatal, at least for the time being, and for fear of potential side-effects.
Sedki would not currently recommend taking the new shots “because the body interacts with them and they may cause side effects for no reason.” However, he advises those with chronic diseases to get freshly vaccinated to fend off potential pneumonia.
Officials like Al-Assal would recommend having the new vaccines for those who have not had them yet, adding that the seasonal flu vaccine is also recommended.
Hosni explained that “vaccines provide the body with partial immunity of around 60 to 70 per cent through the formation of antibodies.” That immunity, however, soon “expires within a period of six months to a year, while lifelong immunity is not possible since viruses change their genetic material.”
“To put it simply, these viruses resemble the password of a computer, if you exchange a single letter in the genetic code, the device cannot be opened,” Hosni said. “Any minor change in the virus would similarly make the body unable to recognise it, and that is why we see a new surge of the disease occurring in China despite the fact that the whole population had been vaccinated.”
Some new research has also found that the new bivalent vaccines are not as effective as the original ones. A bivalent vaccine contains two messenger RNA (mRNA) components of the coronavirus. Half of the vaccine targets the original strain, and the other half targets the BA. 4 and BA. 5 Omicron subvariant lineages, which are predicted to continue circulating.
One of the authors of research carried out at Columbia University in the US, David Ho, said in an interview in the Indian Express that this finding should not sound new to scientists.
“There is a phenomenon known in vaccinology called immunological imprinting, which means your immune memory preferentially sees what it has seen before,” he explained. Ho and many other researchers advise people to still take the bivalent booster “to stave off serious illness.”
The consensus among scientists remains “that there is still a need to come up with a vaccine that can overcome imprinting and thwart the transmission of the virus,” the Indian Times article concluded.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly