A senior World Health Organization official on Monday said that it was “premature” and “unrealistic” to think that the coronavirus pandemic will come to an end by 2021, reported AP.

WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme Director Dr Michael Ryan, however, said that the arrival of vaccines could dramatically reduce hospitalisations and deaths. “If we’re smart, we can finish with the hospitalisations and the deaths and the tragedy associated with this pandemic” by the end of the year, he said at a media briefing.

Ryan said that data shows licensed vaccines appear to be helping in curbing the spread of the coronavirus. “If the vaccines begin to impact not only on death and not only on hospitalisation, but have a significant impact on transmission dynamics and transmission risk, then I believe we will accelerate toward controlling this pandemic,” he said.

The emergencies programme chief, however, warned against complacency, saying nothing was guaranteed in an evolving epidemic.

Ryan said that vaccinating frontline healthcare workers and those most vulnerable to severe disease would “take the fear... out of the pandemic”, reported AFP.

At the briefing, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that vaccines against the coronavirus can help save lives but it was a mistake if countries were solely relying on inoculations. Tedros said that it was disappointing but not surprising that the daily coronavirus case count rose last week in Europe, the Americas, southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.

“Some of it appears to be due to relaxing of public health measures, continued circulation of variants, and people letting down their guard,” he said. “...Basic public health measures remain the foundation of the response.”

The WHO chief said that it was “regrettable” that younger and healthier people were getting inoculated against Covid-19 in rich countries, but at-risk healthcare workers were not receiving vaccines in developing countries.

He said that immunisation provided by the United Nations-backed effort COVAX began earlier this week in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, but again expressed regret that it was happening three months after countries such as Britain, the United States and Canada began vaccinating their own population.

“Countries are not in a race with each other,” Tedros said. “This is a common race against the virus. We are not asking countries to put their own people at risk. We are asking all countries to be part of a global effort to suppress the virus everywhere.”

However, the global health body stopped short of criticising the rich countries. “We can’t tell individual countries what to do,” said Dr Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser at WHO.

Under the Covax programme, 11 million, or 1.1 crore, vaccine shots will be delivered to various countries this week and an additional 237 million, or 23.7 crore, doses will be allocated to 142 participating countries between now and May-end. The breakdown of the allocation will be released on Wednesday.

Globally, the coronavirus has infected more than 11.4 crore people and killed over 25.37 lakh, according to John Hopkins University. Over 6.46 crore people have recovered from the infection in the world.