Epidemic, Endemic and Pandemic: Where is COVID-19 Heading?

The world has currently grapeled with an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic for over two years. As reported by the New York Times, there have been a total of 378 million cases and almost 5.7 million deaths worldwide. The development of mRNA vaccines provided a glimpse at a hopeful future, with 114 vaccines currently in clinical trials on humans, and 48 reaching the final stages of testing. Vaccines produced by Phizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s Jansen have qualified EUA (emergency use authorization) by the FDA, and are currently being distributed globally to prevent future outbreaks. Whilst an initial variant of the contagion spread rapidly, governments around the world were able to temporarily cease the spread of the Delta Variant. However, on November 26, the Omicron variant was named a variant of concern.

Now, Omicron accounts for more than 99.5 percent of new cases within the U.S., with the nation reporting almost 356,000 new daily cases. Unlike its preceding variants, Alpha and Delta, Omicron is a highly contagious strain presenting milder, less life threatening symptoms. Although the Delta variant seemed to incubate for around 4 days before showing visible symptoms, “Omicron is swifter still, with an incubation period of roughly three days,” according to a recent C.D.C. study. Shorter incubation periods, with faster growing and larger viral load transmissions have led to an increase in asymptomatic transmission rates, making accurate and effective contract tracing difficult to implement.

For many countries, the highly contagious but less harmful variant signaled a turning point. Determined to escape another year of restrictions, which would have once again stunted their recovering national economies, “countries suggest it’s approaching time to treat Covid as an endemic disease, like seasonal flu.” The World Health Organization’s experts believe that this move is premature. With the majority of the world still unvaccinated and a pandemic that is far from over, announcing an “endemic stage” would result in drastic policy changes that require further deliberation.

But what does endemic mean? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an epidemic is caused by an unexpected increase in a number of disease cases within a specific geographical area,” This differs from what we are currently facing, a pandemic declared by the World Health Organization (WHO), when cases grew exponentially across several countries. Pandemics are drastically different from an endemic outbreak, which persists year round at a predictable rate and spread. Unlike international pandemics, such as the one that we are currently experiencing, endemics are regional specific. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebryesus reported to Bloomberg that “learning to live with [COVID-19] shouldn’t mean enduring that much death.” Countries will most likely begin to consider COVID-19 an endemic disease based upon their local immunity levels, starting in places like Portugal where 89 percent of the local populace is vaccinated.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAD), said that the “coronavirus pandemic won’t end with the elimination of the virus.” Instead, he says that a less dangerous and disruptive strain of the virus will likely take hold and become endemic as reported by NPR. Fauci later said that an endemic COVID-19 virus would be at “such a low level that it doesn’t disrupt our normal social, economic and other interactions.” Even so, Fauci still believes that it is too early to tell whether recent surges will head towards a more manageable phase. As of February 1, there has been no official word from either the NIAID, the National Institute of Health, or the WHO on changing the current status of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, one message has stayed fairly consistent: get vaccinated and mask up.

By: Andrew Chinn

Leave a Reply