It’s been three years since the first Covid-19 case was diagnosed in the United States, on January 20, 2020. In the time since, nearly 1.1 million Americans have died from the coronavirus; the US has reported 102 million Covid cases, more than any other country, according to Johns Hopkins University. Both figures, many health officials believe, are likely to have been undercounted.
There have also been remarkable scientific achievements in our response to the pandemic, not least of which is the development of Covid-19 vaccines. But there are still many unanswered questions. To help with reflections on what we’ve learned and what more we need to understand, I spoke with CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician, public health expert and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She is also author of “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”
CNN: You’re a physician caring for patients, a public health researcher and professor. What are the key lessons you’ve learned from the last three years of Covid-19?
Dr. Leana Wen: There are three main lessons that come to mind. First, we have seen how much the global scientific community has come together and delivered some truly incredible achievements. Less than a year after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, we had a vaccine developed, authorized and being distributed. The scientific community has rallied on many other aspects of the response to Covid-19, including to identify treatments and improve surveillance testing.
Many of the scientific developments will last beyond this pandemic and help with other aspects of our infectious disease response. For instance, the technology behind mRNA vaccines could be used to make vaccines for other diseases. The wastewater surveillance being used to identify and track Covid-19 may be helpful for detecting other viruses.
Second, Covid-19 has unmasked many existing crises and amplified them for the world to see. The coronavirus didn’t create health disparities — these long-predated the virus — but exacerbated existing ones.
There were also many faults with the public health infrastructure that, while long known to those of us in the field, have been exposed for all to see. Data systems are not integrated between public health agencies, for example, and city and county health departments are woefully underfunded given their many responsibilities. These stem from the fragmented health care system we have in the US, as well as the ongoing lack of investment in local public health agencies.
At the same time, Covid has also demonstrated how crucial public health is. There is a saying that “public health saved your life today, you just don’t know it.” I think there is much more recognition among many that public health is essential to preventing problems that can have a major impact on people’s health and well-being.
With that said, Covid-19 occurred during a time of deep division. Virtually every aspect of the pandemic has become politicized and polarized. So thirdly, there has been rampant misinformation and disinformation that’s made the response much more challenging. We are seeing the lasting effects, such as reduced uptake of routine childhood immunizations. I’m very concerned that public health itself has become politicized in a way that could harm our response to future pandemics.
CNN: You mentioned that we’ve learned a lot scientifically. What more do we need to understand about Covid-19?
Wen: At this point in the pandemic, a lot of people have moved on from Covid-19 and no longer think about it as a major factor in their everyday lives. However, there are millions of Americans vulnerable to severe illness who remain very concerned about the coronavirus. These are people who are immunocompromised, elderly or with multiple underlying illnesses. To me, the most important research questions pertain to these individuals.
There are some antiviral medications that are effective for Covid-19 treatment, such as Paxlovid. Some patients are not eligible for Paxlovid, though, and other options are becoming more limited. The US Food and Drug Administration has revoked their authorization for monoclonal antibodies that could treat Covid-19 infection, as they no longer appear to be effective against new circulating variants. Recently, the FDA has also said that the preventive antibody Evusheld may be ineffective against some variants, including the XBB.1.5 variant that’s currently dominant in the US.
It should be an urgent priority to focus on developing better treatments for those most vulnerable to severe disease from Covid-19. I also hope that there will be much more investment into finding better vaccines. The vaccines that we have are excellent at protecting against severe disease, which is most important. However, they are not very effective at preventing infection.
The ideal vaccine would be more effective at reducing infection, and target the virus broadly so that we are not always trying to anticipate what variant will develop next — and then scrambling to find a vaccine that works against that variant. There is research being undertaken into nasal vaccines and pan-coronavirus vaccines, for example. I hope these efforts will be expedited.
CNN: We are learning more about long Covid, but is this an area that needs more research?
Wen: Absolutely. We know that many people have lingering symptoms after a Covid-19 infection. According to a large study from Israel, most symptoms resolve within the first year after infection for people with mild illness. However, there are some who have lasting symptoms, like fatigue, headache, palpitations and shortness of breath, that are so debilitating they can no longer work.
There is a lot that we don’t yet know about long Covid. The most important is how to treat patients who have it. The physiological mechanisms behind what’s causing their lingering symptoms are also unclear, along with exactly how common they are.
There are long waits to get into specialized clinics that treat this condition at present, so a lot more education needs to be done for primary care physicians and other clinicians who will probably end up being the main health care providers for many people suffering from long Covid.
CNN: What do you anticipate will happen in this coming year around Covid-19?
Wen: Right now, China is undergoing a massive surge of cases. It’s the last major country to have enforced a strict zero-Covid policy, and now that policy has been reversed. Once China’s infection numbers stabilize, Covid-19 will probably become endemic there, as it has become in most other parts of the world.
There will, no doubt, be new variants that arise. We need to keep on top of them and monitor accordingly to see if they are more deadly and/or evade the effectiveness of existing vaccines. The key, as I said earlier, is to develop vaccines that can more broadly cover variants.
And we must again remember that, while many people have resumed pre-pandemic lives, others have not. In the next year of Covid-19, I believe that the focus needs to be much more specific to these individuals who need our help the most. We should target boosters and treatments to those most vulnerable, for example.
Finally, there should be a much greater effort to rebuild our public health infrastructure. This is long overdue. Doing so is critical not just for preparing for the next pandemic, but also for improving health and well-being for all Americans.