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ALPHA, BETA, DELTA, OMICRON .........NEXT?

Now scientists say that COVID 19 is not going away but expect the virus to circulate indefinitely, hopefully with lower and more predictable case numbers. What remains unclear however is whether the coronavirus will stay a greater health risk than other endemic respiratory viruses, like the flu. We were at a stage when our nation's vaccination rollout was very high and our minds and behaviour's were starting to relax. Then Omicron arrived...

The latest wave of the Omicron Variant has served as a reminder that the coronavirus is still mutating in unexpected ways and as so little of the world has had the privilege of initial vaccination, we must expect further variants. With COVID expected to become a fixture and considering how fast the Omicron variant spreads, some infectious disease experts now think most everyone could be infected during their lifetimes. And the real question is how severe that infection is going to be?

Vaccination and boosters will remain a critical fixture of the future, much like our annual flu shots. However, waning immunity keeps the virus from dying out completely. A virus becomes endemic as people grow overall immunity to a disease through vaccination or infection. Research suggests that ever changing social interactions prevent pathogens from dying out and pushes them towards becoming endemic.

As we have learned during this pandemic, mutations are very unpredictable and no one can possibly know when or what comes next. Typically, it takes a few years for a new viral pathogen to move from pandemic to endemic and eventually there will be some sort of repeated patterns. Pfizer executives have this week predicted that COVID will become endemic by 2024.

But researchers can’t say for sure how damaging an endemic level of COVID could become. And when it becomes endemic and people become infected, how much severe disease and death it will cause? Scientists believe that when COVID does become endemic, that most people will become infected about every 3 years on average.

Endemic COVID won't affect everyone equally. With COVID, even if you’re vaccinated, some people are going to become infected and die, and the average age of those individuals is in their 80's. Immunosuppressed people might not benefit as much from vaccinations and could need additional protection to reduce the risk of endemic COVID. If risks are more significant during spikes of endemic COVID, layers of protection, like masks and distancing, could still prevent infection and help manage risk, particularly for at-risk populations. 

Four other coronaviruses circulate in humans now and cause common colds. Scientists suspect that they might have developed out of pandemics before they weakened in severity as people gained immunity. The real message is that viruses are very smart and want more than anything to replicate and stay alive, so more surprises could be in store.

By Jill Berenson retired nurse, see Patient Advisory Bio click here