Story at a glance
- The coronavirus pandemic is about to enter its second yea, with nations around the world trying to figure out how to handle the new omicron variant.
- Many scientists believe that COVID-19 will never fully be eradicated but that the pandemic will eventually transition to an endemic.
- That means that COVID-19 would continue to circulate, but people would have gained enough immunity through vaccinations and natural infections that transmission would drop.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020, numerous variants have emerged, lockdowns have been instituted and vaccines introduced. People around the world have craved normalcy, a life without COVID-19, but many scientists believe that may not ever be possible.
As the world enters year two of the coronavirus pandemic, many scientists expect the virus to continue circulating indefinitely, which is a status known as endemicity. This means that COVID-19 wouldn’t be completely eradicated but rather the virus would continue to circulate, people having gained enough immunity to it from vaccinations and natural infection that there would be significantly less transmission.
Less transmission would mean less COVID-19 related hospitalizations and death.
Elizabeth Halloran, an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told NBC News that, “everyone has stopped talking about getting rid of Covid, it’s not going away, and that means it’s going to be endemic.”
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Other public health figures also believe COVID-19 is on the path towards endemicity, with executives from vaccine maker Pfizer saying they believe an endemic state is likely by 2024.
According to CNBC, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer Mikael Dolsten said, “when and how exactly this happens will depend on the evolution of the disease, how effectively society deploys vaccines and treatments, and equitable distribution to places where vaccination rates are low. The emergence of new variants could also impact how the pandemic continues to play out.”
New variants are causing dilemmas around the world now, as the omicron variant became the dominant strain in the U.S. and caused White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci to describe omicron as “truly unprecedented.”
Figuring out when exactly the coronavirus pandemic could transition to an endemic state is challenging, as a group of associate professors of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health attempted to answer.
“It’s dependent on factors like the strength and duration of immune protection from vaccination and natural infection, our patterns of contact with one another that allow spread, and the transmissibility of the virus,” said the Harvard professors.
Patterns of contact are something the federal government initially tried to control, instating lockdowns and limiting the number of people that could gather during the 2020 portion of the pandemic. However, one year later with multiple new COVID-19 variants, there have been no further lockdowns in the U.S., with the federal government relying heavily on vaccinations and boosters to allow life to resume a sense of normalcy.
If the COVID-19 virus slowly but surely becomes a permanent fixture, and eventually transitions to an endemic state, some infectious diseases experts say there’s a good chance everyone could be infected with COVID-19 at some point in their lifetime.
Francis Riedo, an infectious diseases doctor at EvergreenHealth in Washington state, told NBC that, “it seems to me it’s almost inevitable you’re going to become infected. The real question is how severe that infection is going to be.”
Vaccinations help, as researchers in Texas previously found that unvaccinated people living in that state were 20 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated people. Federal and local public health officials have been urging people to get vaccinated, as the U.S. hovers around a 72 percent vaccination rate of those who have received at least one dose. Only 61 percent of people have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 30 percent have gotten their booster.
If COVID-19 eventually transitions from epidemic to endemic, it could become more predictable and stable, similar to influenza. But for now researchers can’t say with certainty how dangerous even an endemic level of COVID-19 could get. There’s still a lot to be learned about the virus and there is no medical model that can predict the future with exact certainty.
“The really open question for me — or maybe for public health or all of us — is when it becomes endemic and people become infected, how much severe disease and death does it cause?” Halloran said.
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