Public health experts say that the disease could likely become endemic and cause less disruption to lives and livelihoods 

Younten Tshedup

A year into the global health crisis, public health experts say Covid-19 might never go away or, in technical terms, be eradicated.

Like other coronaviruses that continue to infect humans today, experts believe that SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, will also become endemic — one that has a constant presence within a geographical area, such as the common cold, dengue, and malaria, among others.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) country representative, Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus, said: “While eradicating Covid-19 in the coming years is a wonderful goal to achieve, it’s not realistic.”

He said that the world to date has eradicated only one disease — smallpox.

Dr Rui said that it was highly likely that Covid-19 would continue to circulate and cause outbreaks for many years. “Many scientists believe that Covid-19 can become endemic like other diseases but that’s something for the future to unfold and it can’t be predicted.”

In a recent survey conducted in the UK, more than 100 public health experts, including immunologists, infectious-disease researchers, and virologists working on the novel coronavirus, said that the virus would become endemic.

However, failure to eradicate the virus does not mean that death, illness, and social isolation would continue on the scales seen so far.  Experts say that the future would depend mainly on the type of immunity people acquire through infection or vaccination and how the virus evolves.

Influenza and the four human coronaviruses that cause common colds are also endemic — but a combination of annual vaccines and acquired immunity means that societies tolerate the seasonal deaths and illnesses they bring without requiring lockdowns, masks, and social distancing.

This is one scenario that scientists foresee for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.  Meaning, the virus will be around but once people develop some immunity to it — either through natural infection or vaccination — they won’t become seriously ill.

Dr Rui said that the currently available vaccines have proven to prevent people from getting sick with Covid-19. “It would also have a significant impact on reducing the burden on the health system.”

However, he added that vaccination needs to happen in all countries with good coverage to ensure some relaxation to return to normal ways. “Until then we ‘ll still need to adhere to measures such as using face masks, avoiding crowds, and regular hand washing,” he said. “Vaccine alone isn’t adequate. Also, we still don’t know how long the immunity from the vaccine will last and also how the disease will evolve.”

Given the uncertainties of the current situation, he said that there still was a lot to learn about both the virus and the vaccines.  He added that, with the mutations happening, there was a certain degree of uncertainty as to whether the vaccines would be effective for all kinds of mutations that would emerge.

“WHO keeps a close eye on the evolving situation and collaborates with various agencies and countries to monitor the mutations. We also conduct research to assess whether the vaccines will continue to be as effective against the virus.”

In the meantime, Dr Rui added that even with vaccines available, it was ‘premature’ and also ‘unrealistic’ to write off Covid-19.

More than a year ago on March 11, the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic.  Since then, the virus has infected over 123 million and killed more than 2.71 million people globally.

In Bhutan, it has infected 869 individuals, of which 585 are men.  Of that, 867 have recovered and one chronically ill person died with Covid-19.