State of the Pandemic: Leaders in the Fight Against Covid-19 Discuss Local, National and Global Challenges

As more people globally are vaccinated, what is the current state of the pandemic? What are the hopes for the future? What are the challenges in Illinois, nationally and globally?

A panel of experts discussed these and other questions on April 29 at the Executives’ Club of Chicago.

The event, called Covid Now: Global, National, Local was moderated by Economic Club Board Member, Dr. Helene D. Gayle and questions from the audience were posed by David Snyder, president & CEO of The Economic Club of Chicago and featured panelists: 

How are we doing?

Dr. Berkley and Dr. Collins noted the extraordinary accomplishment of injecting the vaccine just 327 days after the genetic code was published. Collins said the vaccine “didn’t come out of nowhere” and was a result of 25 years of prior research on messenger RNA (mRNA). The testing, however, did not go as well, and he wished they had improved that sooner. As for therapeutics, there are monoclonal antibodies but right now, Collins is hoping for the “home run” — a safe and effective oral agent that is in development now. 

Collins said 54% of adults have had one vaccine and 82% of those over age 65 have had one dose. He worries about the 129 million adults have not yet been vaccinated and many are signaling they are hesitant. He said there is a lot of work to do to get to a level of herd immunity.

The situation in much of world, particularly India is heartbreaking, Collins said. He said it is time to reach out aggressively to help in areas that are struggling.

COVAX, a global initiative was created in response — initially focused on the poorest countries it now includes 191 countries with its goal to provide equitable access to vaccine. Now, with the variants, “We are not safe, unless everyone is safe,” is strongly believed, said Berkely.

The disparities remain however — high high-income countries have 1/3 vaccinated, upper-middle income countries 10%, lower middle income 5% and low-income countries 0.2%. “This is not equity,” Berkley said.

Donors have stepped up and raised 6.7 billion dollars.

Dr Ezike is proud that Illinois has administered 9 million vaccine.  

What about the variants? Will we need boosters?

Dr. Collins said the variants are a cause for concern. The B117 in UK is 50% more contagious and 20% more lethal but seems to “happily covered by our vaccine.” The biggest concern is the B1617 variant in India. It is not known if the current vaccines will protect against this variant. Whether we will need boosters is not yet clear Colins said. The feel confident there is immunity for 6-9 months, but it is not like measles where you are vaccinated for life. He said that Messenger RNA has “moved the needle forward” in the development of vaccines for cancer.  

What lessons have been learned in Illinois?

Dr. Ezike said they have known that Public Health in Illinois has been defunded for decades. There needs to be an increase in funding and technology resources. The state has 97 local health department some with just three people. “Other states our size have 90 epidemiologists, we had about 20,” she said.

Should vaccinations be mandatory?

Dr. Berkley noted that it is the wealthier countries with the most vaccine hesitancy — the highest in France and the lowest in Rwanda. This is because the less wealthy countries have seen the disease. He said education is needed but not scare tactics.

Dr. Ezike agreed that education is key. She said people need to learn how vaccines work from preschool on up so there is not pushback, but an embrace.

“People find work-arounds or exemptions or ways to avoid if they are not bought in that It’s important to do,” she said. 

How important is it for businesses to require vaccinations?

Dr. Ezike said it is logical that businesses or event organizers would require something that will allow their businesses to be safe.

Dr. Collins said private institutions need to decide whether to mandate vaccines. He acknowledges there is strong emotion tied to a vaccine mandates and said and said the nastiest emails he receives are from those opposing a mandate. Although vaccinations were approved under emergency use authorization which stipulates they may not  be mandated. A permanent approval would need to be passed. Collins said it is hard to defend not being vaccinated and said emphasis should be put on “being freed from impending doom” — the ability to have dinner, to hug people is liberating.

What do you imagine our headlines will read in a year — April 29, 2022?

Dr. Francis Collins: Highly effective oral antiviral agent approved for broad public use.

Dr. Ngozi O. Ezike: Coronavirus has been sufficiently maintained, very few cases noted week over week and there is an effective cure that helps treat people quickly and effectively.

Dr. Seth Berkley: High risk people across the world are protected with these powerful new vaccines.


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Susan Berger is a freelance journalist in Chicago and writes frequently for the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. She was a 2019 fellow with the National Press Foundation Fellowship to study vaccines and spent time learning from leading experts Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Willam Schaffner and others at the NIH. She was recently selected for a May 2021 fellowship with the CDC through the Association of Health Care Journalists. She also has written for the New York Times, Health Magazine, National Post, Agence France-Presse, and CBC. Susan has appeared on BBC World News, CNN, WGN-TV, WTTW-TV and on CBC Radio. A life-long North Shore resident she not only attended New Trier High School but won an Illinois Press Association Award in 2002 for her coverage of the decision to open New Trier West to freshman-only. Her work can be viewed at www.bergerreport.com and you can follow her on Twitter @Msjournalist.