Nearly one year since the novel coronavirus first emerged in China, the World Health Organization on Monday said COVID-19 will likely become endemic and remain with humans for years to come, just like influenza.
In a somber year-end message, experts with the United Nations’ health agency said the novel coronavirus likely will become endemic even with the advent of vaccines. They also said humanity needs to prepare for the possibility of an even worse future pandemic.
“The likely scenario is the virus will become another endemic virus,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO health emergencies chief, during a news briefing at the agency’s Geneva headquarters.
The message was delivered nearly one year after Chinese authorities notified the WHO on Dec. 31, 2019, about a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown origin in Wuhan, an industrial city. By the end of January, with Wuhan under a strict lockdown and residents there falling severely ill and dying, the agency declared the novel coronavirus an international health emergency.
Still, outside of eastern Asian nations with past experiences of novel virus outbreaks, few countries took the coronavirus very seriously. About a month later, Europe and the United States were caught completely off guard after discovering the virus was spreading quickly within their communities. Ten months later, the Americas and Europe account for 75% of the 81.4 million infections detected around the world and about 80% of the global death toll in a pandemic that has killed about 1.8 million people on its way to becoming endemic.
Deaths and new cases remain very high in both the Americas and Europe and there are fears they will spike again following the holiday season. Another major concern is the discovery of new strains of the virus that scientists say are more easily transmitted. These strains were first found in the United Kingdom and South Africa but are showing up in more countries around the world.
In the past week, there are signs that Europe and the Americas may be getting the virus under better control again after weeks of lockdowns and restrictions. Data collected by Johns Hopkins University shows deaths and new infections are on a downward trend in both hard-hit regions.
Still, Dec. 22 marked the deadliest day yet in the pandemic with 14,468 new deaths recorded, the university’s data shows. Between Dec. 21 and Sunday, 71,677 deaths were linked to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
With the distribution of vaccines speeding up around the world, most recently in Europe since Christmas, Ryan said the coronavirus will become “a very low-level threat.”
But, he added, “the existence of a vaccine even at high efficacy is no guarantee of eliminating or eradicating an infectious disease. That is a very high bar for us to be able to get over.”
More worrisome is the risk that humans will be hit with a new disease even worse than that caused by the new coronavirus, he said.
“It may come as a shock to people: This pandemic has been very severe, it’s spread around the planet, but this is not necessarily the big one,” Ryan said. “This virus is very transmissible and it kills people and it has deprived so many people of loved ones, but its current case fatality is reasonably low in comparison to other emerging diseases. This is a wakeup call.”
Scientists warn that other new pathogens may be unleashed as the natural world comes under increasing stress due to climate change, deforestation, intensive farming, development, and other human activities. In response, experts say it is crucial to do more to identify and study viruses in nature and develop medicines and vaccines against new potential diseases.
In its final news briefing for 2020, a year that saw the agency thrust to the forefront of the public’s attention as it coordinated efforts to combat the pandemic, WHO experts said the world had made huge progress in the fight against the coronavirus through medicines, vaccines, treatments and the panoply of measures to avoid infection but said victory remained far off.
“This virus is telling us we are not prepared, we’re still not prepared,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, a WHO senior adviser. “We’re now into second and third waves of this virus and we’re still not prepared to deal with and manage those.”
He said the world is highly vulnerable to new pathogens and more pandemics.
“Are we prepared for the next one? We’re not fully prepared for this one, let alone the next one,” Aylward said. “We’re prepared for flu better than we were in the past. We’re now better prepared for coronaviruses. But are we better prepared for the next pandemic? We don’t know what the next pandemic is, we don’t know what that next virus is, and it would be folly to say that we’re fully prepared.”
He added: “If anything, at the end of 2020, we should be humbled by the fact that we will always be preparing for these viruses.”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said the pandemic has underscored the importance of health care and he urged countries to invest much more in public health systems.
“I think in terms of awareness, we are now getting it,” Tedros said. “I think the world is understanding the centrality of health the hard way.”
Among other things, Tedros wants governments to spend more on public hospitals and clinics, training health workers, setting up better screening systems, and providing for universal health care coverage.
“We have seen the centrality of health during this pandemic when the whole world got ill and when we all became hostage of this virus,” he said. “Going forward, investing in health will be a priority for all countries.”
— By Cain Burdeau, CNS European Union