World Health Organization officials predict that the “fate” of the COVID-19 virus is to become endemic, suggesting that 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 that there are a variety of factors that could shape the trajectory of the infectious disease.
At a press conference on Tuesday, several senior WHO officials warned that the development of COVID-19 vaccines does not guarantee eradication of the virus, proposing that a more realistic goal would be to reduce the threat of transmission to more manageable levels.
“It currently appears that the fate of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) is to become endemic,” said David Heymann, chair of the WHO’s strategic and technical advisory group for infectious risks.
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“But his final fate is not yet known. Fortunately, we have tools to save lives and these, together with good public health … will allow us to learn to live with COVID-19. ”
According to the United States-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a disease is endemic when it is consistently or predictable within a population or region. For example, chickenpox is endemic across much of North America and spreads at a constant rate among young children.
Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., Agrees the COVID-19 virus is on track to follow several other human coronaviruses that have become endemic, most often causing symptoms mild respiratory symptoms, such as the common cold.
Evans said some evolutionary biologists believe that after making the leap from animal populations to human populations, these endemic coronaviruses have mutated over the centuries to strike a pathogenic balance between ensuring effective person-to-person transmission, without being so virulent. to the point of killing the host.
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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 favor more transmissible but less virulent versions of the disease.
“We can speed up the process of adaptation of the population to the new virus by using vaccines … so that we don’t have to wait 100 years for it to become some kind of low-grade endemic coronavirus that causes cold syndrome in winter in the world. ”
But Jean-Paul Soucy, a doctoral student in epidemiology at the University of Toronto, says that while the COVID-19 virus doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon, there are too many unknowns to predict what the disease will look like. 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 it remains to be seen to what extent this will have a direct impact on us.”
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While some pathogens mutate to become less fatal, Soucy said that is not the case for all viruses.
The piecemeal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the world will likely influence the geography of the disease, Soucy said.
What’s more, he said, it’s still unclear whether the first batch of vaccines will stop the spread of the virus or simply prevent the development of symptoms.
With so many unanswered questions, Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba, argues that the possibility of the COVID-19 virus becoming endemic is not a “conclusion.”
“I know it’s dark right now,” Kindrachuk said. “But this is certainly not the first time that populations have found themselves in this situation.”
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Vaccination campaigns have eradicated viruses in the past, he said, pointing to decades of efforts to eliminate smallpox.
It’s hard to say if that’s possible for COVID-19, Kindrachuk said, given that the virus has reportedly passed from animals to humans, and there is still the potential for further cross-over “fallout”.
But Kindrachuk fears overconfident predictions that COVID-19 is here to stay could breed complacency among a public weary of the pandemic, as Canadians should work towards the ultimate goal of stopping the spread of the virus.
“We cannot resign ourselves to any particular outcome at this point,” Kindrachuk said. “We still have a large part of the result in our hands.”
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