The Moroccan immunology expert believes in order for lockdowns to be completely lifted, researchers must develop a safe and efficient COVID-19 vaccine—which may not happen until 2021.
Rabat – Moroccan expert in immunology and vaccinology Moncef Slaoui predicts life will return to normal at the beginning of 2021 after global leaders bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control, but the world as we know it will endure remarkable change.
“The pandemic will have a lot of damage on the human population. I believe that by 2021 our reality will not be completely back to normal but it will have improved,” said Slaoui during his appearance at the “Press Confidences” program, which aired April 12 on 2M.
The Moroccan expert’s prediction, which he considers optimistic, is based on several conditions that governments must adhere to while lifting lockdowns to avoid new outbreaks.
Gradual lift of lockdowns
The first condition for lifting lockdowns is to ensure their respect, Slaoui began.
COVID-19 infection rates will only slow if the public is aware of the importance of lockdown measures and follows them closely, allowing governments to control the spread of the pandemic.
“If the virus continues to spread, there is no way to control it without a vaccine,” Slaoui said. “We will get [to vaccines] eventually but we’re not there yet. If we want to lift the lockdowns, we need to fully respect them first.”
The second condition is generalizing serological tests, or tests on antibodies in people’s blood, to identify those who are immune to the novel coronavirus.
The detection of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases proves that there are people with immunity to the disease, and such people would be the first to start leaving their homes and go back to their normal activities. However, in order to detect immunity, health authorities would have to perform millions of tests.
When the immune population can get back to work and reactivate the wheel of the economy, the high-risk sector of the population must be strictly confined for their protection.
The third condition to lift lockdowns, Slaoui continued, is developing a solid COVID-19 treatment strategy.
Over 800 clinical studies on COVID-19 treatments are underway around the world. In the upcoming months, the scientific community will have solid and well-founded results. Effective treatments will reduce mortality and morbidity rates, reducing the threat of COVID-19 and the pressure on health infrastructures.
Finally, when COVID-19 treatment improves, governments can start gradually lifting lockdowns while waiting for vaccines to be available. COVID-19 vaccines may take years before everyone can benefit from them; however, they will greatly minimize the risks of the virus.
COVID-19 treatment options
With hundreds of ongoing clinical studies, Slaoui believes researchers and doctors will reach strong and well-founded results on the best treatment for COVID-19.
“I am optimistic that due to the high number of COVID-19 cases, clinical studies will reach results quickly. I believe that, by the end of May or by early June, we will know if some of these drugs work,” said Slaoui.
The studies are currently focusing on three types of drugs.
The first type is drugs that inhibit the virus from reproducing inside a patient’s body. Examples of the drugs include hydroxychloroquine, which has had mixed results, as well as a drug called Gilead remdesivir, which has shown promising results so far.
The second drug family is a medication that reduces the intensity of the immune system’s response to COVID-19. In many cases, coronavirus-related deaths occur because of the intensity with which the patient’s body responds to the virus, Slaoui explained.
The drugs have already been approved for different diseases, and clinical trials should soon determine their efficiency in treating COVID-19 patients.
The third category of treatment is monoclonal antibodies. The treatment aims to strengthen the immune system of COVID-19 patients by injecting antibodies from recovered patients who developed an immunity to the disease.
Recovery equals immunity?
Viral infections, Slaoui explained, generally make patients immune to the disease after recovery, and the only exception occurs when the virus is constantly evolving. Influenza, for example, requires yearly vaccination as different flu viruses circulate and mutate during each season.
The variability of the novel coronavirus, despite its quick reproduction and spread, does not, so far, suggest it can evolve to a point where it can break through a recovered patient’s immunity.
“I would be very surprised if patients who recovered weren’t immune to the virus,” said Slaoui.
However, while immunity protects against the disease, it does not eliminate the risk of smaller infections. Immune people can still get infected, but their immune system will quickly combat the infection before they show any symptoms.
Therefore, even if a person is immune, there is still a possibility they will transmit the novel coronavirus. Future tests will help confirm or deny the theory, depending on the viral charge among immune patients and if it is enough to contaminate others.
Unprecedentedly quick vaccine development
There are currently 30 COVID-19 vaccines in development, including two vaccines in the phase of clinical tests. The speed at which vaccines are being developed is unprecedented, according to Slaoui.
The scientific community transcribed the DNA sequence of the novel coronavirus on January 13. On March 16, after only eight weeks of development, the first vaccine had already reached the clinical testing phase.
The development process for vaccines usually takes between three and seven years. The process includes theoretical design, production, and several tests in tubes and on animals before it reaches clinical testing on humans.
Based on the quick pace of development, Slaoui is confident researchers will reach conclusions on the vaccines’ safety and efficiency by the end of the year.
“I am very optimistic that we’ll have several vaccines for COVID-19. However, the problem is not having a vaccine. The problem is producing enough to protect eight billion people,” he continued.
Health experts, including Slaoui, have been warning of a global pandemic for over a decade, calling for the construction of factories capable of producing vaccines in large quantities to prepare for future pandemics.
“The question was not about if a pandemic will happen, but rather when it will happen and which type of virus will cause it, and it happened faster than people expected,” said the Moroccan immunology expert.
The vaccine will take years to reach the whole global population, he added, so the world needs to be innovative after it is developed and make intelligent choices regarding its use.
“We should use vaccines on people facing the highest risk of infection—healthcare workers and others who are on the frontlines. Then, we will increase production capacity little by little,” Slaoui suggested.
“I am optimistic that the 30 vaccines in development will all succeed. Then, in the upcoming years, their production will cover the whole world population.”
Governments, international organizations, and pharmaceutical corporations will have to face several ethical dilemmas regarding how and where to use COVID-19 vaccines.
Governments will certainly attempt to purchase a maximum amount of vaccines for their populations. Slaoui suggested that higher scientific authorities without political affiliations tackle the questions and come up with a plan on the optimal use of vaccines to respond to the pandemic.
During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, Slaoui was working for JKS, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. He recalled that several countries threatened to take control of vaccine production facilities if their populations did not benefit from them.
“We had problems because some of the countries where we had production units said that if we don’t give them vaccines in priority, they will bring the army and take control of the factory,” he said.
While the production of COVID-19 vaccines would take several months, the Moroccan researcher believes the world is equipped with good confinement strategies to mitigate the pandemic’s damage until the vaccines are ready.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” he assured.
Technology is key
While globalization is the main reason for the uncontrollable spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, technology can be the remedy, according to the Moroccan scientist.
The use of technology will be essential to beat the pandemic, as evidenced in countries such as China and South Korea. However, for it to be effective, privacy policies should be updated.
Several smartphone applications send notifications to users when they make contact with potential COVID-19 patients, allowing people to avoid high-risk places and take the necessary isolation measures if they make contact with carriers of the virus.
For the applications to work, people should be willing to carry their phones with them at all times and have their location shared with authorities. If people leave their phones at home, the system’s efficiency will take a hit.
Tech giants Google and Apple are already collaborating on a coronavirus tracker. Its success would be a great advantage for the global fight against the pandemic.
“There will be a debate about privacy,” Slaoui admitted, “but I hope we’ll overcome it.”
Towards a better world?
Slaoui believes several industries and economic sectors will go through a complete metamorphosis after the COVID-19 crisis.
E-commerce, for instance, will grow exponentially, impacting several companies if they fail to quickly reposition themselves on the market. Companies like Amazon will generate unprecedented revenue, the Moroccan researcher predicted.
Remote working will also become a norm, he continued. The COVID-19 crisis has led companies to discover that several jobs can function perfectly even from home. The new trend would have several implications on social life and on the balance between work and family.
The food industry is expected to change completely as well, with restaurants and fast-food chains turning takeout into their main business model.
More importantly, governments will better understand the importance of investing in the health sector, Slaoui continued.
Other sectors such as rental businesses may be negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.
“People will start asking: Who touched this bike before me? Who touched this car before me? Who was in this hotel room before me?” Slaoui illustrated.
New habits and trends will appear while others disappear, but the most important outcome of the global health crisis, Slaoui said, is that the world learns from the experience and becomes better because of it.
“In four or five years, I hope that we will not forget about this and start investing in pandemic prevention and response.”