Will we ever live in a world without COVID-19?
As the pandemic enters Year 3, many people are wondering if and when COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, will become endemic. Endemic refers to the observed level of a disease — or the baseline predictable level with seasonal fluctuations like the flu — whereas a pandemic is typically a global public health emergency with an unpredictable level of illness and/or death.
That is a long way off, and COVID-19 will always be with us, Dr. Gregory Poland, who studies the immunogenetics of vaccine response at the Mayo Clinic, told MarketWatch and Barron’s in a live video interview on Wednesday.
Measles, a highly contagious airborne virus spread through coughing and sneezing, serves as a good point of comparison. It is a stable virus and does not change, with no variants. As such, measles has — for the most part — been eradicated in the U.S.
Will there come a day when COVID-19 goes the way of measles? “We’re hoping one day [measles] will be eradicated. Will that happen with coronavirus? No, it will not,” Poland said. “We are not yet at any stage where we could predict endemicity. We’re not going to eradicate it. We have an animal reservoir now — white-tailed deer in the U.S. — that are infected with SARS-CoV-2, for example.”
“‘We are not yet at any stage where we could predict endemicity. We’re not going to eradicate it.’”
— Dr. Gregory Poland, Mayo Clinic
“So let me make a prediction, which will be hard for any of you to hold me to because we will all be dead by then, but your great-great-great-grandchildren will still be getting immunized against coronavirus,” he added. “How can I even say such a thing? If you got your flu vaccine this fall you were immunized against a strain of influenza that showed up in 1918 and caused a pandemic.”
COVID-19 has killed 853,230 Americans. Currently, there is a daily average of 753,990 new cases in the U.S., up 29% over two weeks, according to the New York Times tracker. Deaths currently have a daily average of 1,971, up 48% over 14 days. The COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub estimates that deaths to mid-March could be between 50,000 and 300,000.
A recent “viewpoint” essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested the Biden administration needs to address the fact that COVID-19 is here to stay. “As the U.S. moves from crisis to control, this national strategy needs to be updated. Policy makers need to specify the goals and strategies for the ‘new normal’ of life with COVID-19 and communicate them clearly to the public,” it said.
The “new normal” does not include eradication or elimination, it added. “Neither COVID-19 vaccination nor infection appear to confer lifelong immunity. Current vaccines do not offer sterilizing immunity against SARS-CoV-2 infection. Infectious diseases cannot be eradicated when there is limited long-term immunity following infection or vaccination or nonhuman reservoirs of infection.”