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We need to think about the COVID-19 vaccines we'll need in 3 to 5 years: Public health expert

The threat of new coronavirus variants remains a focus for the world's leading public health experts, even as some wealthier and more vaccinated countries push for a return to normal.

It's why Bill Gates angered some experts over the weekend when he said it's too late to meet the World Health Organization's global vaccination goal of 70% and that there is no longer demand for vaccines. He added that with natural immunity from the virus, much of the African continent has a higher level of protection.

"You get well over 80% of people have been exposed either to the vaccine or to various variants," Gates said at the Munich Security Conference.

"What that does is, it means the chance of severe disease ... those risks are now dramatically reduced because of that infection exposure," he added.

But experts at the first global Ports To Arms Summit in Abuja, Nigeria, on Wednesday sharply disagreed with Gates.

Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, said that even if we are tired of the virus, it is not tired of us.

"We've had a new variant every 4-5 months; it's likely that there will still be new variants. They may or may not be more severe," he said in response to a question from Yahoo Finance.

"What's important to keep in mind is that previous variants have not necessarily protected against new variants," Berkley added.

Dr. Atul Gawande, assistant administrator for global health for USAID, pointed out that the 70% goal is the minimum goal — and that number has broader implications for the overall pandemic.

"That's the only way we will be able to stop the generation of more variants," especially to protect the most vulnerable segments of the world's population, he said.

His comments come at a time when the African continent remains largely unvaccinated — with just over 10% fully vaccinated.

Kate O'Brien, executive director of the WHO's Internal Vaccine Access Center, told Yahoo Finance that the 70% goal does include flexibility and considers country-by-country needs.

"The strategy does talk about adaptation ... as the pandemic evolves. I don't want anybody to misperceive that this...is sort of written in stone in any way," O'Brien said.

But the issue is no longer a vaccine shortage, but rather an oversupply. The problem arose as African nations struggled to manage constantly changing supply promises, which lead to scrambling plans on the ground to ramp up infrastructure to get the shots in arms.

It's why John Nkengasong, Africa CDC director, is asking for a pause on all global donations until the third or fourth quarter this year.

However, that doesn't mean that the urgency to vaccinate has subsided.

"If you look at the death numbers, things are not changing very quickly at all. We still have a pandemic around the world," O'Brien said.

"There is still a race to vaccinate," she added.

Richard Hatchett, CEO of Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said that rather than calling for an "end to the virus" in areas of high vaccination, the focus should instead be on the long term outlook.

"We need to be thinking about the vaccines we want to have in three to five years when this virus is still with us — still mutating, still changing," he said.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, regional director for Africa WHO, added that the ultimate goal is to provide protection against severe illness and minimizing deaths in those who contract the virus, even if vaccinated.

She pointed to a roadmap created by the WHO to prioritize the most vulnerable.

Recent studies have shown that even with natural protection from the virus, a single dose of a vaccine can provide much better protection for individuals.

Follow Anjalee on Twitter @AnjKhem

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