As governments continue to ease COVID-19 norms, health experts have warned against it.
After two years into the pandemic, many countries have expressed their desire to start treating COVID-19 as an endemic disease like the seasonal flu. Despite the high infection rate of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, countries including England, Denmark, Spain, and Ireland have drastically eased restrictions for the public.
What is an endemic?
When a disease occurs at regular intervals in certain areas according to predictable, established patterns, it is classified as endemic. A pandemic on the other hand is a global outbreak of disease that causes unpredictable waves of illness.
When a disease transitions from pandemic to endemic, it affects the measures taken by authorities to contain the spread of the disease. The measures change and often restrictions are loosened as the disease is considered to be predictable.
Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, told Al Jazeera that “endemic in itself does not mean ‘good’, it just means ‘it’s here forever”.
“Importantly, a disease is considered endemic doesn’t mean we consider it mild. It just means it remains a part of our lives, and therefore we still protect the vulnerable from severe illness, as we do with other diseases," Hassan Vally, associate professor at the Deakin University, and Catherine Bennett, the chair in epidemiology at the Deakin University were quoted as saying in a Mint report.
Vally and Bennett added it’s crucial to understand that living with the virus isn’t the same as ignoring the virus. “Instead, it represents an adjustment in the way in which we respond to the disease," they said.
Health experts and scientists, however, say there’s too much uncertainty about the evolution of the virus and the immunity developed among people.
Growing clamour to categorise COVID-19 as an endemic
Denmark had announced plans to lift all restrictions related to COVID-19 as its health ministry announced that COVID-19 “will no longer be categorized as dangerous to society” in the country.
Political leadership in Spain, UK and some other countries has also emphasized that societies need to learn to live with the virus.
The UK had earlier cut the COVID-19 isolation period to five days as it further loosened restrictions.
“COVID is not going away. It’s going to be with us for many, many years, perhaps forever, and we have to learn to live with it,” Sajid Javid, the UK Health Minister as reported by Al Jazeera.
“I think we are leading Europe in the transition from pandemic to endemic and we’re leading the way in showing the world how you can live with COVID,” he added.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also said it’s time to think about living with COVID-19 in the long term like the world does with flu.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro also said that the country is looking to downgrade COVID-19 to the status of an endemic.
What do the WHO and scientists say?
The World Health Organization has cautioned that it is too early to treat COVID-19 as an endemic disease.
Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, told CNBC, “Covid will not magically turn into a malaria-like endemic infection where levels stay constant for long periods. It will keep causing epidemic waves, driven by waning vaccine immunity, new variants that escape vaccine protection, unvaccinated pockets, births and migration.”
Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray said, “A disease is endemic if the reproductive number is stably at one. That means one infected person, on average, infects one other person, right now, we are nowhere near that. Each person who’s infected is infecting more than one person,” in a Vox report.
The evolution of the virus is still uncertain, and it is continuing to rage at a global level.
“We still have a virus that’s evolving quite quickly,” said Catherine Smallwood, a senior emergency officer at WHO Europe. “It may become endemic in due course but pinning that down to 2022 is a little bit difficult at this stage” in a report by Firstpost.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had stated, “It is dangerous to assume that Omicron will be the last variant, or that we are in the endgame, globally the conditions are ideal for more variants to emerge.”
David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said “We can’t predict where variants will occur, and we can’t predict what their virulence or their transmissibility will be.”
Therefore, if and when the transition of COVID-19 from pandemic to endemic finally happens it may not be necessarily smooth as there will be challenges along the way.
First Published: IST