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

Eva Pucci Couture in this file shot from May 29, 2019, when she came to Chilliwack asking for the public’s help in locating her missing son, Kristofer Shawn Couture. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Missing man’s mom still hopeful, 2 years after his car was found abandoned at Chilliwack trail

‘I wish someone would come forward with insight into your whereabouts,’ pleads mom of missing man

Chilliwack is expected to be among the province’s hottest real estate markets in 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)
Chilliwack housing market projected to be among B.C.’s hottest in 2021

B.C. Real Estate Association projects Chilliwack and District to grow by 17.1 per cent

Abbotsford tattoo artist Tanya Loewen has entered the Inked cover girl contest.
Abbotsford mother, tattoo artist enters Inked cover girl contest

Tanya Loewen, tattoo artist at Van Bree Tattoo, hoping to win big in magazine contest

Sheriff Avory Chapman was last seen Jan. 20 on Wellington Avenue in Chilliwack. (RCMP)
RCMP look for missing man last seen in downtown Chilliwack

21-year-old Sheriff Avory Chapman has been missing since Jan. 20

Dr. Penny Ballem, a former deputy health minister, discusses her role in leading B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccination program, at the B.C. legislature, Jan. 22, 2021. (B.C. government)
B.C. holds steady with 407 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday

14 deaths, no new outbreaks in the health care system

B.C. Premier John Horgan listens during a postelection news conference in Vancouver on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
30% of B.C. recovery benefit applications held up in manual review

The province says 150 staff have been reassigned to help with manually reviewing applications

Adam Dergazarian, bottom center, pays his respect for Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, in front of a mural painted by artist Louie Sloe Palsino, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Kobe Bryant’s presence remains strong a year after his death

Tuesday marks the grim anniversary of the crash that took their lives

Surrey RCMP are investigating after a pedestrian was struck and killed at 183 Street and Highway 10 Friday night. (File photo)
RCMP officers wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 stand by. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
RCMP appeal for witnesses after hit-and-run leaves girl, 17, in critical condition

The Metro Vancouver teenager was found unconscious and critically injured after being hit: police

The Brucejack mine is 65 km north of Stewart in northwestern B.C. (Pretivm Photo)
B.C. mine executives see bright gleam in post-COVID future

Low carbon drives demand for copper, steelmaking coal

In this Dec. 18, 2020 photo, pipes to be used for the Keystone XL pipeline are stored in a field near Dorchester, Neb.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chris Machian /Omaha World-Herald via AP
Canadians divided over Keystone pipeline, despite U.S. president’s permit pullback

Two-thirds of Canadians think Biden’s decision was a “bad thing” for Alberta

Langley activist Dorscie Paterson celebrated her 108th birthday on Monday, Jan. 25 at the Cedar Hill long term care facility. Because of the pandemic, she remained inside, able to see, but not shake hands with visitors. (Dan Ferguson/Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Celebrating a 108th birthday without physical contact

Pandemic required Langley woman to stay behind a window

A woman wearing a protective face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 walks past a mural in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
5 big lessons experts say Canada should learn from COVID-19

‘What should be done to reduce the harms the next time a virus arises?’ Disease control experts answer

Most Read