Can we see the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel?
Since the World Health Organization announced the new crown “global pandemic”, more than 185 million people have been infected with the virus, causing 4 million deaths.
People hope that vaccination can return the world to a certain state of normalcy and relax the restrictions that have affected our lives in the past 16 months.
But scientists are increasingly convinced that the new coronavirus will continue to exist.
In January this year, the scientific journal Nature asked more than 100 immunologists, virologists and health experts around the world whether the new coronavirus can be eradicated? Nearly 90% of the respondents said “No.” They said that there is evidence that the new coronavirus may become an endemic virus and continue to spread around the world.
This is not unheard of in the struggle between humans and disease, but this virus poses some specific challenges. So, how does science predict that we will have to coexist with the new coronavirus in the next few years?
Why is it difficult for us to eradicate the new coronavirus soon?
Eradication of infectious diseases is not common. In fact, the World Health Organization has so far only announced that smallpox and rinderpest have been officially eradicated.
Smallpox is an ancient disease that has prevailed throughout human history and caused 500 million deaths in the 20th century until it was eradicated in the 1980s. Only smallpox can be compared with the new coronavirus in geographical distribution and coverage.
A series of unique conditions helped eradicate smallpox, mainly through the development of a vaccine to cut off the spread of variola virus. Unfortunately, the new crown vaccine has not yet achieved the same effect.
“The vaccines we are using now cannot prevent infection in some cases. They just ease the infection and make the disease less serious.” said David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, went further. He believes that the vaccine will not prevent us from contracting the new coronavirus in the future.
“The new crown virus will never disappear,” he predicted.
“For the rest of our lives, we will inevitably be infected with it repeatedly, regardless of whether we have a vaccine or not.”
What will happen next to the new coronavirus?
Professor Hyman and many experts believe that the new crown virus will become an endemic virus, which means that it will continue to spread in many parts of the world in the next few years.
This is nothing new. For example, the influenza virus and the four coronaviruses that cause the common cold are endemic viruses. The World Health Organization estimates that between 290,000 and 650,000 people die from influenza-related diseases each year.
But these diseases have become controllable, and the death toll is to be expected. Scientists predict and politicians also hope that the new coronavirus will become like this: In this case, the virus will continue to exist, but people have developed a certain degree of immunity to it through vaccination and natural infection. Therefore, there are fewer serious cases of this disease, and the number of hospitalizations and deaths will not maintain the scale we currently see.
The problem here is that we still don’t know if this virus will really be like this. Professor Hyman called the new coronavirus “very unstable.”
“When this virus replicates in human cells, it mutates from time to time. Some of these mutations cause concern.”
But the expert also said that the new coronavirus can be made less worrying in other ways.
Virus toxicity (severity) can also be reduced, either through mutations or because most people are vaccinated.
Do we have to vaccinate repeatedly?
The virus has a “mission”: to spread itself to as many people as possible. This is the reason for the mutation.
“From an evolutionary perspective, viruses need to mutate to spread to more people. A successful virus is easier to spread,” explains Trudy Lang, professor of global health at the University of Oxford.
As we know, there have been at least four major variants of the new coronavirus, including the highly contagious Delta virus, which was originally discovered in India and is currently the main cause of the surge in cases in Europe, Asia and the United States. Statistics show that the vaccine is effective against Delta virus.
For example, the latest data from the Public Health Agency of the United Kingdom show that among all patients infected with this variant virus between February and June, 82% were either not vaccinated or received only one dose. However, the British National Health System has already started planning for a third injection or “booster” before winter, which will involve more than 30 million people.
The National Institutes of Health has started a clinical trial for fully vaccinated people to study whether the booster injection will increase antibodies and prolong protection.
The reality is that scientists still don’t know how long the immunity of the new crown vaccine will last. Because these vaccines are fairly new, researchers are still analyzing the immune response of different types of vaccines.
Professor Hyman said: “No one knows whether we need to develop a vaccine further.”
Will blockade become the norm?
With the increase in infection and hospitalization rates, some countries and regions have had to re-impose travel and movement restrictions.
Although these measures have helped slow the spread of disease and relieve pressure on the health system, they have also caused economic damage, including rising unemployment.
Will the blockade still be part of the pandemic scene? Experts say this will depend on the success of vaccination to reduce the number of hospital admissions in each country.
In the past few months, we have seen local and national interventions taken around the world: Australia has blocked seven cities, while Bangladesh has opted for a nationwide blockade.
“Whenever possible, the lockdown will become the basic method that the government can use in response to the epidemic,” said Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor of health and safety at the City University of Hong Kong.
Do we have to wear masks in the future?
During the epidemic, no measures are more controversial than the mandatory use of masks. But scientists all support the use of masks to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, even in areas with high vaccination rates.
Christina Gravert, a behavioral scientist at the University of Copenhagen, said: “It is clear that we cannot implement a lockdown every time an outbreak occurs.”
“But it seems reasonable to continue to advise people who are sick to stay away from public transportation, work from home, or at least wear a mask when they are next to other people,” she said.
The use of masks is common in some Asian countries, but not in other parts of the world. Regarding the willingness to use masks in the future, public opinion polls are not encouraging: for example, for those vaccinated, the mandatory outdoor use of masks was lifted in April. The Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index (Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index) shows that since then, the proportion of vaccinators who have reported wearing masks has dropped from 74% to 63%.
The survey also found that among the unvaccinated people, the number of people wearing masks is also decreasing. Some people believe that the government should support the use of masks indoors as part of a public health campaign. Some people think it depends on the individual, and some people may choose to wear a mask as a sign of politeness, especially on public transportation or crowded places.
What about international travel?
Currently, many governments have taken measures to close borders for non-essential travel. The government is in a dilemma between the economic consequences of this move and protecting the country’s population from the virus.
Different countries have different rules. Experts like Professor Hyman criticize the lack of coordination in global work.
He said: “Due to the uneven distribution of vaccines, WHO will not recommend’vaccine passports’, but I expect some countries will use them.”
“If people can’t travel because they can’t get the vaccine or don’t get the vaccine for some reason, it is certainly unethical to issue a vaccination certificate.
Despite this, the European Union has introduced a Digital Covid Certificate, which allows those who have completed the vaccination to move unrestricted across the European continent, provided that they have been vaccinated, tested negative or have recently recovered from the virus.
The vaccine passport is recognized by all 27 member states of the European Union, as well as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.
But how the rest of the world will handle the entry of people from other countries remains to be seen.