A senior World Health Organisation official on Monday said it was unrealistic to think the pandemic might be stopped by the end of 2021.
But Dr Michael Ryan, director of the WHO’s emergencies programme, said the recent arrival of effective vaccines could at least help to dramatically reduce hospital admissions and deaths.
The world’s singular focus right now should be to keep transmission of Covid-19 as low as possible, Dr Ryan said.
“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.
Dr Ryan said the WHO was reassured by emerging data that many of the licensed vaccines appeared to be helping to curb the virus’s spread.
“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.”
But Dr Ryan warned against complacency, saying nothing was guaranteed in an evolving epidemic.
“Right now the virus is very much in control,” he said.
The WHO’s director general, meanwhile, said it was “regrettable” that younger and healthier adults in some rich countries were being vaccinated before health workers in developing countries.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said immunisations provided by the UN-backed Covax effort began this week in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
But he lamented that this was happening three months after countries such as Britain, the US and Canada began vaccinating their own populations.
“Countries are not in a race with each other,” Dr 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.”
But the WHO stopped short of criticising countries that are moving to vaccinate younger and healthier people instead of donating their doses to countries that have not yet been able to protect their most vulnerable.
“We can’t tell individual countries what to do,” said Dr Bruce Aylward, a senior WHO adviser.
Dr Tedros also noted that for the first time in seven weeks, the number of Covid-19 cases increased last week, after six consecutive weeks of declining numbers.
He said the increase was “disappointing” but not surprising.
Mr Tedros said the WHO was working to better understand why cases increased, but that part of that surge appeared to be due to the “relaxing of public health measures".