Next year could see the end of COVID-19 as an emergency worldwide, but global healthcare systems are still at risk of being overwhelmed, the World Health Organisation has told Sky News.
From lockdown protests in China, to the long-awaited reopening of Japan, to President Joe Biden declaring the pandemic over in the US, coronavirus remained in the headlines worldwide in 2022.
Now as we close out the third year of the pandemic, and look towards the fourth, Sky News looks at how different regions have dealt with everything from vaccines to disinformation – and what to expect in 2023.
One of the biggest storylines this year was the growth of the Omicron strain, which has come to dominate the global COVID-19 caseload.
“We reached a peak of more than 23 million cases reported in a week,” the WHO’s Dr Maria Van Kerkhove told Sky News.
“We had to re-draw our scale. On the one hand while we saw that huge increase in transmission, on average Omicron was not as severe as Delta but still in some countries caused more deaths because of just the sheer number of cases.”
Omicron may have become the dominant variant, Dr Van Kerkhove says, but it is still evolving and changing, with around 500 sub-lineages in circulation.
She added: “And this is why surveillance needs to continue.
“We need to track the known variants. We need to be able to detect new ones.”
Deserted streets in China were a common sight as the country pursued aggressive lockdown policies
But despite the changes with Omicron, the original vaccines are continuing to hold up against severe disease, Dr Van Kerkhove says.
There is more to do in terms of vaccine coverage worldwide however, she added.
While more than 13 billion doses of vaccines have been administered globally, the WHO target of 70% of populations in each country has not been reached.
This is one of the areas where inequalities in access can be seen.
Worldwide some 79% of people aged 60 or over have received their primary vaccine, but that number is only 60% in Africa.
“We’re not reaching those targets. And we have to in every single country, but predominantly in lower income countries, we’re missing those indiuals.”
A mental health worker with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) attends to a patient in Caracas, Venezuela
Dr Van Kerkhove urged those who have yet to get the vaccine to do so, saying that it is not too late.
“And what we see right now is the people that are requiring hospitalisation, the people who are dying, are the people who have either not received any vaccine at all or they haven’t received the full number of doses that they need.”
Looking back at 2022, she says the year was marked by countries adjusting their strategies as they opened up and sought to live with COVID-19.
Some countries in the Asia and Pacific regions, for instance, had been much more closed off during the pandemic as they sought to seal themselves off while rolling out vaccination programmes.
Thailand, which is highly dependent on tourism, was one of the first Asian countries to open up, while Japan and Hong Kong were some of the last.
There remains a prevalence of mask wearing in those regions, which has been largely abandoned in other parts of the world.
People hold white sheets of paper in protest over COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing, China
Protests in China over the country’s strict lockdowns have spread into some of the most significant unrest the regime has seen since Tiananmen Square.
But after most zero-COVID restrictions were suddenly reversed in the wake of the protests, the virus swept through the country largely unchecked.
The new wave led some leading scientists in recent weeks to warn it could be too soon to declare the end of the pandemic.
“It’s clear that we are in a very different phase [of the pandemic], but in my mind, that pending wave in China is a wild card,” Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, who sits on a WHO committee tasked with advising on the status of the COVID emergency, said this December.
Canada saw its own protests earlier in the year, as trucks rolled into the nation’s capital in a demonstration against mandatory vaccines that turned into a larger protest against government overreach.
This inspired others across the Atlantic in France and Belgium, with a “freedom convoy” demanding an end to COVID-19 restrictions.
A great unknown in Asia is what is happening in the secretive North Korea, which was reluctant to report having any cases at all.
President Joe Biden receives an updated vaccine
India, however, has seen very little impact from coronavirus this year compared to the devastation it caused in 2021.
Markets, schools, colleges, factories, manufacturing units, government and private offices are all open, while work from home has been largely withdrawn after becoming the norm.
This has been helped by the country’s large-scale vaccination programme that has seen 2.2 billion vaccines administered, covering almost 70% of the population with two jabs.
In the US, President Joe Biden declared that the “pandemic is over” in September.
This was despite hundreds of Americans dying with the virus every day at the time – down from more than 3,000 deaths a day earlier in his presidential term.
A man is escorted by police amid protests over vaccine mandates in Ottawa, Canada
However despite more countries opening up in 2022, Dr Van Kerkhove said there remains a risk that healthcare systems could be overwhelmed.
“In countries around the world the virus is spreading unchecked and healthcare systems right now are extremely fragile everywhere.
“Health workers are absolutely exhausted. Many have retired. Many have left. And we don’t see that strength in the system that we need to see.”
But she added that despite COVID-19 being here to stay, next year could see an important change in the way the virus is viewed.
A visitor walks past an illuminated COVID-19 model in Paris, France
“We’re hopeful next year we can end this as an emergency everywhere because countries are better at dealing with it.
“The big wildcard is the virus. The wildcard is the mutations and the evolution of this virus.”
Long COVID is a “significant concern” and will be a big emphasis going forward as more research is done into what it is and how to treat it, she said.
Another huge issue that remains is around disinformation and partisan politics about the virus.
“So trust is really at an all time low because of what everyone has gone through with the politicisation, attacks on science, misinformation.
“And we have to work really hard to build that. It’s so hard won, but easily lost.”