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Position Statement 31: Is it significant that the end of the pandemic in Poland was announced on April Fool's Day?

“Having a lack of monitoring will be like switching off a building’s fire detectors – we could end up blindly facing the next wave of infections, and only intensive care units quickly filling up will alert us that we have reacted too late” warn experts from the Interdisciplinary COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences in their latest statement. 

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On 1 April 2022, the end of the pandemic was declared in Poland, practically speaking. Although in reality the epidemic is still ongoing, on that day the government lifted virtually all restrictions, including mandatory isolation of patients, and the National Health Fund ceased the additional funding for COVID-19 related services, including funding for testing and funding for temporary hospitals. The government's decision has been welcomed by those who deny the pandemic or even deny the very existence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, while those who have been involved in the struggle against the pandemic for the past two years tend to believe that this is a dangerous and premature decision. Which of these stances should be believed? What does the end of the pandemic mean in real terms? 

A milder variant, but still dangerous 

At present in Poland, approximately 60% of the population has received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, while 30% has received three doses. A large share of the remaining individuals have already contracted COVID-19 at least once. It should be borne in mind, however, that the immunity acquired from vaccination or from contracting the disease itself dissipates rather quickly. Unfortunately, the failure to strongly promote the vaccination campaign in Poland, and consequently its slow pace, has resulted in over 200,000 excess deaths. The body of practically each and every one of us has already been in contact at least once, with the virus or with a fragment thereof, resulting from vaccination or contained in the vaccine. Therefore, becoming infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus today triggers a faster and more effective activation of the immune defenses than at the beginning of the pandemic, and so the risk of severe illness and death is now lower. In addition, Omicron, a milder variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is less likely to cause severe illness, emerged in November 2021 and is now the dominant variant. The upshot of these developments is that the risk of a new wave of deaths and an overburdened health care system has decreased, despite the oncoming waves of infections. 

Virus evolution 

However, this does not mean that Omicron is completely harmless or that we should not remain on our guard. Omicron can still cause serious and deadly illness in more vulnerable individuals, as well as in those who have not had contact with the virus or had such contact a long time ago. And there are many such people in Poland. In March 2022 alone, there were nearly 3,000 COVID-19 related deaths in our country, which is more than are recorded annually from all other infectious diseases combined. 

As the virus continues to circulate intensively, we can expect to see new variants emerge in the coming months. These may be “descendants” of the milder Omicron, but may also be derived from more “aggressive” strains such as Beta or Delta. We do not know how severe these likely new variants of the disease may be. 

Monitoring strategy needed 

In that case, however, isn't “cancelling” the pandemic premature? We understand that it is difficult not to react to the changing nature of the infection, which statistically speaking is now milder. Indeed, loosening up restrictions that are already largely not being complied with does not really change the status quo. On the other hand, declaring the pandemic over also means that people who fall seriously ill will have problems with getting proper diagnosis and treatment. The availability of effective drugs against COVID-19 in Poland will be limited. But most importantly, having a lack of monitoring will be like switching off a building’s fire detectors – we could end up blindly facing the next wave of infections, and only intensive care units quickly filling up will alert us that we have reacted too late. It would be good to think about strategies to address this (Position Statement 6). In particular, there needs to be a coherent strategy for monitoring not only the incidence of new cases, but also for tracking the possible emergence of new viral variants, especially those that may cause a more severe course of COVID-19. Integrated genetic, clinical, and epidemiological data need to be collected in order to support such monitoring. 

Is this actually the end of the pandemic? 

Nature is certainly not run by politicians or scientists. The SARS-CoV-2 virus may yet surprise us. The possible risks need to be honestly communicated, so that we as a society can make shrewd decisions based on facts, not political calculations (Position Statement 18). Today, the pandemic as a phenomenon paralyzing our world does indeed seem to be a thing of the past, but it will be up to us to make sure it stays that way. The virus is still potentially dangerous, especially for the elderly or those burdened by other diseases. If there are new recommendations for COVID-19 prevention, we should follow them. If vaccination is recommended, we should definitely get vaccinated.  

About the team 

The Interdisciplinary COVID-19 Advisory Team to the President of the Polish Academy of Sciences was set up on 30 June 2020. The team is chaired by Prof. Jerzy Duszyński, President of the PAS, with Prof. Krzysztof Pyrć (Jagiellonian University) as deputy chair and Dr. Anna Plater-Zyberk (Polish Academy of Sciences) as its secretary. Other members of the team are:  

  • Aneta Afelt (University of Warsaw) 
  • Małgorzata Kossowska (Jagiellonian University) 
  • Radosław Owczuk, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk) 
  • Anna Ochab-Marcinek (PAS Institute of Physical Chemistry) 
  • Wojciech Paczos (PAS Institute of Economics, Cardiff University) 
  • Magdalena Rosińska, MD (National Institute for Public Health – National Hygiene Institute, Warsaw) 
  • Andrzej Rychard (PAS Institute of Philosophy and Sociology), 
  • Tomasz Smiatacz, MD (Medical University of Gdańsk)