Nurse Venus Lucero administers the first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Ottawa Hospital to Jo-Anne Miner at a vaccination clinic, Tuesday December 15, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Nurse Venus Lucero administers the first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Ottawa Hospital to Jo-Anne Miner at a vaccination clinic, Tuesday December 15, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

WHO predicts COVID-19 will become endemic, but some experts are less certain

A disease is endemic when it is constantly or predictably prevalent within a population or region

World Health Organization officials are predicting that the “destiny” of the COVID-19 virus is to become endemic, suggesting it could continue to spread through the population at a steady rate despite a global vaccination effort.

But some Canadian scientists say the future of the novel coronavirus is far from set in stone, noting there are a variety of factors that could shape the trajectory of the infectious disease.

At a news conference Tuesday, several senior WHO officials warned that the development of COVID-19 vaccines is no guarantee that the virus will be eradicated, proposing that a more realistic goal would be to reduce the threat of transmission to more manageable levels.

“It appears at present that the destiny of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is to become endemic,” said David Heymann, the London-based chair of the WHO’s strategic and technical advisory group for infectious hazards.

“But its final destiny is not yet known. Fortunately, we have tools to save lives and these in combination with good public health … will permit us to learn to live with COVID-19.”

According to the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a disease is endemic when it is constantly or predictably prevalent within a population or region. For example, chickenpox is endemic in much of North America, spreading at a steady rate among young children.

Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the infectious diseases division at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., agrees that the COVID-19 virus is on track to follow several other human coronaviruses that have become endemic, most often causing mild respiratory symptoms, such as the common cold.

Evans said some evolutionary biologists believe that after making the jump from animal to human populations, these endemic coronaviruses mutated over centuries to strike a pathogenic balance between ensuring effective transmission from person to person, without being so virulent as to kill off the host.

He projects that the COVID-19 virus could follow a similar evolutionary path, but said this process could be compressed over a shorter period of time because “vaccine-induced herd immunity” would limit the pool of potential hosts to favour more transmissible but less virulent versions of the disease.

“We can speed up the process of adapting the population to the new virus by using vaccines … so that we don’t have to wait 100 years for this to become a sort of low-grade endemic coronavirus that causes a cold-like syndrome in wintertime around the world.”

But Jean-Paul Soucy, a doctoral student in epidemiology at University of Toronto, says that while the COVID-19 virus doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, there are too many unknowns to predict what the disease will look like down the line.

“I think it’s fair to say that (the COVID-19 virus) will continue to exist somewhere in the world for the foreseeable future,” Soucy said. “But how much it will directly impact us remains to be seen.”

While some pathogens mutate to become less lethal, Soucy said that’s not the case for every virus.

The piecemeal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the globe will likely influence the geography of the disease, said Soucy.

Moreover, he said, it’s still unclear whether the first batch of vaccines will stem the spread of the virus, or just prevent the development of symptoms.

With so many questions remaining, Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba, maintains that the possibility that the COVID-19 virus will become endemic is not a “forgone conclusion.”

“I know it’s bleak right now,” said Kindrachuk. “But certainly, this is not the first time that that populations have been in this situation.”

Vaccinations campaigns have eradicated viruses in the past, he said, pointing to the decades-long effort to eliminate smallpox.

It’s difficult to say whether that’s possible for COVID-19, said Kindrachuk, given that the virus is believed to have jumped from animals to humans, and there’s always the potential for additional cross-species “spillover.”

But Kindrachuk worries that overconfident predictions that COVID-19 is here to stay could breed complacency among a pandemic-weary public, when Canadians should be working towards the ultimate goal of stopping the spread of the virus.

“We can’t resign ourselves to a particular outcome at this point,” Kindrachuk said. “We still have a lot of the outcome in our hands.”

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Salmon Arm Mayor Alan Harrison is comfortable waiting his turn to be vaccinated for COVID-19, as per the B.C. government’s updated vaccination timeline released on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (File photo)
Province’s vaccine timeline a shot of hope for Salmon Arm mayor

Mayor Alan Harrison sees majority of residents taking precautions against COVID-19

Interior Health reported 79 new cases of COVID-19 and two new death in the region Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Ben Hohenstatt/Juneau Empire)
79 new COVID-19 cases, two deaths reported in Interior Health

Both of Friday’s deaths were both recorded at long-term care homes

Adams Lake Kukpi7 (Chief) Cliff Arnouse (pictured), Neskonlith Kukpi7 Judy Wilson and Little Shuswap Lake Kukpi7 Oliver Arnouse released a joint notice regarding confirmed cases of COVID-19 in their respective communities. (File photo)
Secwepemc First Nation bands responding to COVID-19 cases in their communities

Adams Lake, Neskonlith and Little Shuswap Lake band chiefs release joint notice

The CSRD will be hosting online budget consultations and their board meetings will also be streamed online for the foreseeable future. (CSRD Image)
Columbia Shuswap Regional District budget and board meetings will be held online

A first draft of the budget is available on the regional district’s website

(Pixabay photo)
Black Press Weekly Roundup: Top headlines of the week

In case you missed it, here’s what made waves throughout the week

Sunnybank in Oliver. (Google Maps)
Sunnybank long-term care in Oliver reports third COVID-19 death

The facility currently has an outbreak with 35 cases attached to it

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a daily briefing in Ottawa. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld)
31 cases of COVID-19 variants detected in Canada: Health officials

Dr. Theresa Tam made announces 13 more variant COVID-19 cases in Canada

Administrative headquarters for the Regional District of Central Okanagan in Kelowna. (File photo)
Tempers fly over a pricey picnic shelter in the North Westside

Lack of detail on $121,000 shelter expenditure further incites self-govenance wishes

Big White Village on Dec. 16. (Big White photo)
11 more COVID-19 cases linked to Big White cluster

Interior Health provided an update on the cluster on Friday

Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak declared at Kamloops’ Royal Inland Hospital surgical unit

Despite 6 South being a surgical unit, RIH said surgeries are continuing at the hospital

Daily COVID-19 cases reported to each B.C. health region, to Jan. 20, 2021. Island Health in blue, Northern Health green, Interior Health orange, Vancouver Coastal in red and Fraser Health in purple. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate stays stable with 508 cases Friday

Vaccine delivered to more than 110,000 high-risk people

(Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
‘It’s incredibly upsetting’: Kelowna health care worker demands WestJet ticket refund

Kelowna woman has been waiting almost a year for a refund on her Kelowna to Edmonton flight

After a Vernon resident tried to domesticate a pair of gopher snakes, BC Conservation Service reminded that it is against the law to keep wild animals in one’s possession. (Yuval Levy/Unsplash)
Wild gopher snakes aren’t pets: Vernon conservation officer

After resident kept two gopher snakes in home, conservation reminds it’s illegal to domesticate wildlife

Most Read