- James Gallagher
- BBC Health and Science correspondent
In the past two years, who hasn’t shouted angrily, “Why is this epidemic not over yet?” or “When will I be able to live a normal life?” These words? I must have cried myself.
Now, the answer to these questions may be… soon.
There is growing confidence that the Omicron variant could bring the UK to the end of the global pandemic.
But what happens after that? Viruses don’t disappear at the snap of your fingers. Instead, a new keyword that we’ll have to get used to is “endemic” – which means that there is no doubt that the new coronavirus is here to stay.
So, is the new crown era really coming? What will it mean for our lives?
“We’re almost there, and it’s the beginning of an end, at least in the UK,” Professor Julian Hiscox, chair of infection and global health at the University of Liverpool, told me. “I think 2022 life will almost return to what it was before the global pandemic.”
What is changing is our immunity. The novel coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, China two years ago, and we were very susceptible to it. It is a completely new virus, and our immune system has no experience in dealing with it in the past, and there were no drugs or vaccines that could help.
The result, like walking into a fireworks factory with a flamethrower, exploded around the world—but the fire couldn’t have been burning so intensely forever.
There are two options – we either end the Covid-19 virus as we did Ebola (Ebola) in West Africa. Or the epidemic will gradually subside, but it will coexist with us for a long time, and it will become one of various endemic diseases – such as the common cold, HIV, measles and tuberculosis, etc., and it will always exist.
A lot of people would feel that this is an inevitable fate for a virus that spreads in the air and you don’t even know you’re sick. “This virus is endemic,” said Dr Elisabetta Groppelli, a virologist at St George’s College, University of London.
“I’m very optimistic,” she said, “that we’re going to be in a situation where we’re going to be in a virus cycle soon, and we’re going to take care of people who are at risk, but for other people, we accept the idea that they’re going to get it, and the average person is going to be fine. “
Epidemiologists who study the spread of a virus would classify a disease as endemic when its intensity is more consistent and predictable — rather than as a “bumpy” wave, as the global pandemic has so far another wave.
But others are using the word to mean that the coronavirus is still there, but we no longer need to limit our lives, says Prof Azra Ghani, an infectious disease scientist at Imperial College London.
She believes we’ll get to that state “quickly”, adding: “It seems like it took a long time, but it was only a year ago that we started getting vaccinated and we’re much freer. “
The only possible major twist is a new variant capable of defeating Omicron and causing a more severe disease.
How bad is it?
It is important to remember that endemic epidemics do not directly equate to mild illness. “We have some endemic diseases that are giant killers,” Professor Ghani said. For thousands of years, smallpox was endemic, killing one-third of those infected. Malaria is endemic, causing 600,000 deaths each year.
But we are already seeing signs that as our bodies become more adept at fighting it, the coronavirus will become less deadly.
In the UK, there are vaccination promotions, booster promotions, and several waves of outbreaks involving four virus variants.
“When Omicron is over and over, immunity in the UK will be high, at least for a while,” said Prof Eleanor Riley, an immunologist at the University of Edinburgh.
This high infection rate also came at a cost, with more than 150,000 deaths in the UK. But it leaves a protective force behind our immune system. This immunity will weaken, so we should expect to contract the new crown in the future, but it should reduce the chance of severe illness.
Professor Heathcox is a member of the UK Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. That means people won’t be severely affected, he said.
“If a new variant or an old variant comes along, for most of us, it’s like any other coronavirus cold, we’ll sneeze, have a little headache, and be fine.”
What does it mean for our lives?
Some people will die from the endemic Covid-19 epidemic – mostly the elderly and vulnerable. So there are still some decisions to be made about how we’re going to coexist with it.
“If you just accept zero death rates from Covid-19, then we’ve got a whole set of restraining orders, and that’s not the end,” Heathcox explained.
But, he said, “in a severe flu season, where 200 to 300 people die every day in winter, no one wears a mask or practices social distancing. Maybe it’s a clear line.”
He does not expect lockdown orders and restrictions on mass gatherings to be implemented again, and mass testing will end this year.
Booster shots will almost certainly be given to susceptible people in the fall to increase protection in the winter.
“We need to accept the fact that our flu season is also going to be Covid-19, and that’s going to be a challenge for us,” Dr Groperi said.
How bad the winter will be, however, remains uncertain, as the same people may have died from the flu and Covid-19. As one scientist put it, “You can’t die twice.”
Professor Riley believes that after Omicron, we will no longer make masks mandatory, but masks will become “a much more common sight” as in some parts of Asia, and people will choose in places with many people. wear mask.
She added, “It’s very likely that we’ll all get the flu shot and life won’t look much different than it was in the fall of 2019.”
What about the rest of the world?
Poorer countries are still waiting to deliver vaccines to vulnerable populations. At the same time, countries that isolate the virus from the virus have very low mortality rates, but also have low immunity to the entire population.
“This remains a global pandemic and a serious emergency for the world,” Groperi concluded.