WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan: ‘Even if a new variant emerges, we should be alright’

The WHO director of health emergencies spoke at the Irish Times Winter Nights Festival

Dr Mike Ryan, the Irish-born executive director of the WHO health emergencies programme, speaks with Irish Times columnist Jennifer O’Connell about Covid-19, vaccinations and the threat of new variants as part of the IT Winter Nights Festival.

 

“We need to be really kind to each other in the next few weeks and recognise that not everyone in Ireland will be whooping with joy [at the lifting of restrictions],” said Dr Mike Ryan, Irish-born executive director of the WHO health emergencies programme.

“For some people, re-engaging will be a really hard process. There are the wounds of Covid but there are also the wounds of isolation, anxiety and mental health difficulties. We need to look out for people in general and particularly for people who are struggling.”

Dr Ryan said predicting whether a more severe Covid-19 variant would emerge was like playing “epidemiological poker” but he doesn’t envisage further lockdowns. “The lockdown scenario is unlikely with Omicron, vaccinations and booster shots. And with the sequence of vaccines and infection, our systems develop longer-term immunity. Even if a new variant emerges, we should be alright,” he said.

He emphasised that the pandemic is not over on a global level and even in Ireland, vulnerable people in particular need to remain cautious. “The global emergency isn’t over until it’s over everywhere and even then, the virus will stick around until a new contender comes along to replace it.”  

However he encouraged people here to get back to our lives and leave worrying about future epidemics to the scientists and medical experts. “People shouldn’t worry about the next thing but health systems have to be well prepared for the likely scenario of having co-epidemics of Covid-19 and influenza next winter and keeping people ready to maybe going back to wearing masks and keeping physical distance.”    

Speaking about vaccine inequity, he said that there are currently enough vaccines being produced to distribute them to everyone who needs them.

Asked by Irish Times columnist Jennifer O’Connell whether it was morally right for children in Ireland to be given vaccines when only 7 per cent of Africans have had a single dose of vaccine, he replied: “When individuals are offered a vaccine that is beneficial to their health – and the data shows that the vaccine is protective to children and the benefits outweigh the risks on – they should take it.” 

He said that the responsibility for vaccine equity lies with countries, who must ensure there are policies and mechanisms to get vaccines around the world. “There has been a huge acceleration in the Covax initiative [the international coalition to distribute vaccines]. We are working hard in 40 countries to ensure they will use those vaccines effectively. It would be amazing to get those vaccines all over the world by June to get us out of the acute phase and in control of the virus.”

Speaking about mistakes that were made during the pandemic, Dr Ryan said that “there was a catastrophic failure in global supply chains” of masks and personal protective equipment. 

“We had every bad behaviour that you can imagine – hiding, gouging, price-hikes, gazumping – and we were desperately trying to get medical masks to frontline health workers who were dying in their droves trying to treat patients with Covid. It wasn’t fair. We need to get much better at being able to scale up production of this equipment.”

On a personal level, he said that he coped reasonably well with being “an accidental celebrity” during the pandemic and didn’t catch Covid himself. “I’m looking forward to spending more time with my kids and re-connecting face-to-face with people. But, I’m happiest back out in the field [responding to global emergencies]. That gives me a great sense of purpose.”

The 2022 Irish Times Winter Nights online festival, supported by Peugeot, continues until Thursday, January 27th. Still to come are paralympic gold medallist swimmer Ellen Keane, rugby legend Brian O’Driscoll, author and comedian David Baddiel, writer and feminist Caitlin Moran and Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole. For tickets, go to irishtimes.com/winternights.