"Expecting that we will eradicate or eliminate this virus in the coming months is not realistic," the World Health Organization's Mike Ryan, executive director of health emergencies, said during a press briefing streamed from Geneva on Monday.
"And also, believing that magically we will get a perfect vaccine that everyone will have access to, is also not realistic."
Ryan's notes of caution about eradicating the novel coronavirus, and the disease it causes COVID-19 come as the respiratory virus continues rapidly circling the globe, while infecting tens of thousands of new people across the US every day. On Sunday, Florida reported more than 15,000 new COVID-19 cases in a single day, a new record for any US state.
Relying on herd immunity to protect people from the virus , either through widespread vaccination, or previous infections, may not be very good strategies for this pandemic. Likely, we'll need to keep adhering to more basic public health and hygiene measures for many, many months into the future.
"We can and will develop a vaccine," Ryan said. "The question mark is: 'how effective will that vaccine be?' And, more importantly and more worryingly: 'who will get that vaccine?' And: 'will that distribution be fair and equitable?'"
We're going to be living with this virus for a while
Ryan said there may still be a role for some "limited or geographically-focused lockdowns" in such places "where transmission is, frankly, out of control," without mentioning any specific locations by name.
There are some straightforward, low-tech disease-fighting strategies that can work to keep the spread of the virus very low, as many European and Asian countries have now shown.Handwashing, social distancing, mask wearing, and isolation of confirmed coronavirus cases can all play a role.
"If people continue to frequent crowded places without taking the necessary precautions, if people aren't practicing physical distancing, if people aren't practicing hygiene, if people aren't wearing masks in the proper settings, then the disease will continue to transmit," he said.
"Those things, as simple as they are, can turn it around," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US' leading infectious disease expert, told Stanford Medicine's Dean Lloyd Minor in a virtual chat on Monday.
US Surgeon General Jerome Adams also said over the weekend that the US can "turn this thing around in two to three weeks if we can get a critical mass of people wearing face coverings, practicing at least 6 feet of social distancing, doing the things that we know are effective."
"Clear" and "consistent" messaging from leaders who "turn and face the fire" can help beat the virus
A clear pandemic-fighting strategy on every level, starting with clear communication from top officials in government, on down to every citizen choosing when and how best to be in public as safely as possible, is also key.
"We need clear and strong government leadership," Ryan said, "That's all the more important in countries that are now suffering very, very exponential transmission, which is very, very worrying."
"Turn and face the fire. Turn and face the problem and accept that it's going to take time," Ryan said. "It's going to require a huge commitment on the part of government and individuals in a number of countries to turn this around."