From pandemic to endemic: life in the time of Covid
Beer enthusiasts from across the world recently flocked to Oktoberfest, celebrating the end of a two-year, coronavirus-induced hiatus. With the world’s largest beer festival opening its halls without any Covid-19 restrictions, many have hailed the event as a symbolic step toward accepting life with the virus as a permanent new reality.
The celebrations come at a time when Germans are facing down another raft of strict anti-Covid measures for the coming winter, all while the rest of Europe appears to have embraced the “living with Covid” mantra. Approved by the Bundestag earlier this week, the new measures include mask and hygiene requirements, in addition to stricter testing regimes at hospitals and nursing homes.
The new measures will apply nationwide from October 1, and federal states have the option to apply additional rules depending on local public health conditions. Germany’s Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has also warned that he would not rule out the possibility of “epidemic conditions” being declared if Covid cases spike to dangerous levels.
As health experts have pointed out, making forecasts for Covid has become substantially harder with the increased reliance on rapid at-home tests. Information from these tests is typically not reported to government health officials, obscuring infection rates as a result. Other unknowns, such as a lack of data on the protection offered by hybrid immunity, only further complicate projections.
What is known, however, is that living with Covid requires a collective shift in thinking in how to deal with infectious diseases on both a national and global level. Acute measures such as lockdowns and travel restrictions may have saved lives in the early stages of the pandemic, and shoring up vaccine supplies will prove critical as the virus continues to mutate, but the immeasurable social and economic costs borne by billions of people since 2020 cannot, and should not, be ignored.
Indeed, the costs have been enormous: social distancing measures early in the pandemic have been linked to a substantial rise in rates of depression and alienation; lockdowns and other mobility restrictions coincided with intensified reports of domestic violence; reduced access to healthcare has left hundreds of thousands in medical limbo, and school closures threaten to leave a permanent impact on the education achievements of an entire generation. At the same time, a post-pandemic global recession looms large on the horizon.
As such, early-warning and monitoring solutions are the only means of safely rebuilding while also minimizing the damage wrought by lockdowns. Technical innovations are already on the market to minimize the threat of Covid and other infectious diseases with pandemic potential.
On the artificial intelligence (AI) front, for example, thermal imaging technology, such as thermal kits developed by Remark AI, are already being used to help safely re-open public venues while controlling the spread of disease. Remark’s thermal kits have been designed to scan up to 300 people per minute, and can be installed at venue access points to act as a non-invasive and discrete means of detecting viruses before they spread.
The company joined forces with the Meadows School, a private pre K-12 school in Las Vegas, in August 2020 to help facilitate students’ return to school following the city’s initial pandemic lockdown. Today, the thermal kits scan students for high temperatures upon their entry at school, monitor crowd density, and even raise an alarm if an individual is not wearing a mask.
A different, if no less useful, innovation is a new face mask that detects pathogens in the air surrounding the wearer. Developed by scientists from Tongji University in China, the device is effective even if the wearer is in close proximity to an individual experiencing pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic Covid-19, or near a surface carrying the virus.
To develop the highly sensitive mask, the team at Tongji University designed a small sensor with synthetic molecules that can identify a pathogen’s unique proteins. The new mask is equipped with sensors that can detect proteins associated with Covid-19, H5N1 (bird flu), and H1N1. The current model can even notify wearers via mobile phone within ten minutes of detecting the pathogen.
According to Yin Fang, a material scientist at Tongji University, the team’s goal is to shorten the mask’s detection time and further increase the accuracy of the sensor. If a new respiratory virus emerges in the future, the sensor’s design can be tweaked so as to detect the new novel pathogens.
It is evident that humanity needs to find ways to manage, rather than fight against, infectious diseases on a daily basis. It is only through innovation and adaptation that we have any hope of curbing the devastating impacts of future pandemics, or perhaps even preventing them altogether.
Image: James Almond/Flickr