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

Willow, a kitten belonging to a Victoria family, was rescued by firefighters on Thursday after she got stuck in a basement drain pipe. (City of Victoria/Twitter)
Victoria kitten stuck in basement drain pipe rescued by firefighters

Willow the cat on the mend, owner feeling ‘enormous gratitude’

(Black Press Media file photo)
Blue-green algae bloom confirmed in Elk Lake, water-based activities not recommended

Blue-green algae can be lethal to dogs, cause health issues for humans

Victoria police arrested a man Jan. 15 after he rammed his minivan into an occupied police vehicle. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria man arrested for ramming minivan into occupied police vehicle

Man caught after fleeing, crashing into cement retaining wall

A fire sparked at an encampment between the Pat Bay Highway and McKenzie Avenue early Thursday morning. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
Residents of Pat Bay Highway encampment to be relocated after early morning fire, site secured for clean up

Eviction notice issued in 2020, not enforced to allow BC Housing to connect with campers

Mayor Rob Martin and Costa Canna president Phil Floucault cut the ribbon on Colwood’s first cannabis retail store. (Jane Skrypnek/News Staff)
Cowichan Tribes’ Costa Canna cannabis store opens in Colwood

Cowichan Tribes has one-year deal to grow, sell cannabis

Keith the curious kitten is seen on Nov. 4, 2020 at the Chilliwack SPCA. Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 is Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 17 to 23

Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, Pie Day and International Sweatpants Day are all coming up this week

JaHyung Lee, “Canada’s oldest senior” at 110 years old, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. He lives at Amenida Seniors Community in Newton. (Submitted photo: Amenida Seniors Community)
A unique-looking deer has been visiting a Nanoose Bay property with its mother. (Frieda Van der Ree photo)
A deer with 3 ears? Unique animal routinely visits B.C. property

Experts say interesting look may be result of an injury rather than an odd birth defect

Terry David Mulligan. (Submitted photo)
Podcast: Interview with longtime actor/broadcaster and B.C. resident Terry David Mulligan

Podcast: Talk includes TDM’s RCMP career, radio, TV, wine, Janis Joplin and much more

Seasonal influenza vaccine is administered starting each fall in B.C. and around the world. (Langley Advance Times)
After 30,000 tests, influenza virtually nowhere to be found in B.C.

COVID-19 precautions have eliminated seasonal infection

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam provides an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada’s top doctor says to avoid non-essential travel as B.C. explores legal options

Premier John Horgan says he is seeking legal advice on whether it can limit interprovincial travel

Lilly and Poppy, two cats owned by Kalmar Cat Hotel ownder Donna Goodenough, both have cerebellAr hypoplasia, a genetic neurological condition that affects their ability to control their muscles and bones. Photo by Alistair Taylor – Campbell River Mirror
VIDEO: Wobbly Cats a riot of flailing legs and paws but bundles of love and joy to their owner

Woman urges others to not fear adopting cats with disabilities

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses the crowd during the march on Washington, D.C., in August of 1963. Courtesy photo
Government reinforces importance of anti-racism act on Black Shirt Day

B.C. Ministers say education “a powerful tool” in the fight for equity and equality

A northern resident killer whale shows injuries sustained by a collision with a vessel in B.C. waters. (Photo supplied by Ocean Wise Conservation Association)
Coast Guard ramps up protections for B.C. whales

First-ever Marine Mammal Desk will enhance cetacean reporting and enforcement

Most Read