This year, the world was struck by the accelerating impact of climate change, the war in Ukraine, and the hike in food and energy prices. On top, pandemic fatigue has fuelled government distrust and conspiracy beliefs, further polarizing our society. But amidst all these crises, there were also good news. With regard to global health, here are ten reasons to be optimistic about, as we bid farewell to 2022.
1. Global COVID-19 deaths have fallen to the lowest levels since the pandemic began
The third pandemic year saw the highest number of cases, but the lowest number of deaths; in part because Omicron seems to cause less severe disease and in part thanks to immunity acquired through previous infections and vaccination. This year also saw the arrival of variant-adapted vaccines which may provide greater protection against the Omicron subvariants currently circulating. Also positive is the latest report on the state of vaccine confidence in the European Union: over 80% of respondents agree that vaccines are important, effective and safe. Worryingly, however, the 18-34-year-olds became less confident over the last years and vaccine hesitancy and disinformation are rampant in many parts of the world. COVID-19 remains a public health threat, and the possibility of new waves of infections and deaths caused by the spread of a new, unrelated variant remains open. Hence, the importance of maintaining global efforts to survey the circulation and impact of SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Source: Financial Times.
2. We may soon have a universal flu vaccine
An experimental mRNA vaccine tested in animals induced a protective response against all 20 known influenza lineages (it targets all 18 types of hemagglutinin -a protein on the surface of flu viruses- plus two lineages of influenza B). This vaccine is a potential gamechanger. By greatly reducing the risk of severe disease and death, it could prevent a devastating flu pandemic caused by one of the many influenza viruses that can jump from other animals to humans, including the H5 and H7 subtypes frequently associated with highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses. However, it still needs to be tested in humans and overcome a series of obstacles, such as getting regulatory approval. It could also pave the way for a universal coronavirus vaccine that protects against all SARS-CoV-2 variants and other related viruses, including SARS.
3. Two other emerging disease outbreaks seem under control
The outbreak of monkeypox (now renamed Mpox by the WHO), which was declared a public health emergency of international concern in July, is waning thanks to a combination of vaccination and behavioural changes. Still, it has caused over 80,000 confirmed cases and 65 deaths this year, and will likely become a global disease. Meanwhile, the Ebola outbreak in Uganda, which rapidly grew to become the 8th largest in history - with 164 probable and confirmed cases and 55 deaths as of December 5 - now seems under control despite the lack of effective vaccines against the Sudan Ebola virus (the three existing candidate vaccines may arrive too late for testing). However, both outbreaks once again underscored the lack of interest and investment in diseases that do not usually affect the global north. Once again, Africa was last in line for Mpox vaccines, despite recording the most deaths.
Number and proportion of Mpox cases reported weekly by global WHO regions (22 November 2022). Source: ECDC.
4. Africa will start producing its own mRNA vaccines
One of the greatest moral failures during this pandemic was the unequal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines due to hoarding by richer countries and lack of knowledge sharing by vaccine manufacturers. Hopefully, this could change. Earlier this year, the WHO announced the six first African countries (Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia) to receive training and technical know-how from the global mRNA technology hub in South Africa, which was established in 2021 with the support from African and European partners to promote equitable access to new vaccines.
Madagascar COVID testing 2020. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia / World Bank.
5. A novel approach to develop new antibiotics
By using computers to model bacterial gene products, researchers produced a new antibiotic that killed even the most drug-resistant bacteria. This novel approach, fuelled by the huge advances made this year in using artificial intelligence (AI) for protein design, could be a gamechanger in the fight against antibiotic resistance – one of the major health threats we face today. In 2019, bacterial infections were the second leading cause of death globally (7.7 million deaths from 33 bacterial pathogens) and antibiotic resistance caused over 1.2 million of these deaths.
6. A record-breaking investment to the Global Fund
In its 7th replenishment, the Global Fund achieved an investment of 15.7 billion USD to accelerate the fight to end AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria (with Spain’s contribution increasing by 30%) and at least 20 implementer governments stepped up to become donors as well. Funds will also help countries continue responding to COVID-19, mitigating the pandemic’s impact on the three diseases, and strengthening systems for health and pandemic preparedness. This is particularly relevant since global deaths from tuberculosis increased for the first time in 2020-2021, after decades of progress.
7. An international pandemic treaty in the making
COVID-19 showed us, once again, that no government or institution can singlehandedly address a pandemic threat. The world urgently needs a coordinate plan to better prevent, prepare and respond to future pandemics (the current International Health Regulations are clearly not enough). The WHO is now leading the negotiations for a new, legally binding international treaty, which includes proposals for the sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging viruses and rules on equitable vaccine distribution. But the new pact, which is expected to be ready by May 2024, will only be possible through the long-term political engagement of world leaders and a stronger WHO with more resources, including those from the World Bank’s Pandemic Fund (to which Spain also made a first significant contribution this year).
Photo: Pierre Albouy / WHO.
8. A historic agreement to compensate countries most affected by climate change
A significant step towards climate justice was taken at the COP27 conference with the decision to establish and implement a “loss and damage” fund for vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters. However, as critics point out, the signed agreement is vague and lacks details on who should contribute to the fund and which countries will benefit. Another positive point of the conference is that health has begun to take a central role in climate talks, as the newly launched global knowledge platform on climate and health Still, there is little public awareness of the health impact of extreme temperatures (over 20,000 people are estimated to have died across Europe in this summer’s heatwaves). Sadly, the COP27 talks failed to deliver on decisive actions to move away from fossil fuels (fuel companies sent more representatives than ever to the conference), which means that our chance of limiting temperature rise to 1.5ºC is almost gone.
Photo: UNFCCC / KiaraWorth
9. Wild mammals are making a comeback in Europe
The latest report by a coalition of conservation organizations shows that many mammal populations in Europe have seen a dramatic increase over the last 50 years, thanks to conservation efforts. Also, the 2022 global wildlife summit in Panama (CITES) passed resolutions to protect hundreds of threatened species, including sharks. However, the future looks very bleak for the planet’s wildlife. According to the latest IPBES report, 1 million out of an estimated 8 million species of plants and animals globally are threatened with extinction. This is particularly worrying, since biodiversity loss is a consequence of climate change, but at the same time conserving ecosystems is key to mitigating the impact of climate change.
Source: Our World in Data.
10. The world has never had so much knowledge and tools to solve the challenges it faces
What it lacks is leadership and will, at all levels. Last month, the world population hit 8 billion, according to UN estimates. This means we have 8 billion reasons to redouble efforts and work collectively towards the SDG targets, with a special focus on the two most pressing -and intertwined- threats to life as we know it: biodiversity loss and global warming. The roadmap is clear and there is no more time to lose. The actions we (as citizens and leaders) take – or do not take– in 2023 will determine whether 8 billion people can live sustainably and peacefully on a healthy planet.