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.
At a news conference, 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.”