The light at the end of the pandemic tunnel may be in sight with more than half of American adults vaccinated against COVID-19, but now experts say the virus will never be truly eradicated.
Instead of ending, COVID-19 will step down to an endemic disease, that circulates the globe annually, but less fatally, predicts Dr Gregory Poland, a Mayo Clinic professor of infectious diseases.
‘We are going to continue to live with this virus,’ he told DailyMail.com.
‘We could have solved it. Instead it will always be with us.’
Dr Poland echoed warnings from experts like Dr Anthony Fauci that the burden of COVID-19 was never suppressed far enough to truly eliminate the virus from the U.S., let alone the world.
And he goes a step further, warning that without a dramatic decline in vaccine hesitancy, or a dramatic increase in Americans’ willingness to to adopt masks and social distancing when the virus comes back around, variants will continue to emerge and become more vicious.
Data from Brazil – where the P1 variant, which is still rare in the US, is dominant – suggests that herd immunity requires between 80 and 85% of people to have protection against Covid (green and yellow lines). But 20% of Americans say they probably or definitely won’t get the vaccine (red). That means the U.S. will fall just short of herd immunity, with the maximum number of people vaccinated by mid-August at the current pace (yellow)
‘These variants are bad actors,’ Dr Poland says.
‘They contain the “evil trifecta” of mutations’ – three changes to the virus that make it better at infecting human cells, and better at escaping antibodies – ‘that’s why kids are getting infected that didn’t a year ago – this is a different virus from a year ago.’
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr Rochelle Walensky sounded the alarm over this phenomenon again on Monday.
‘Cases and hospitalizations are increasing in some areas of the country, and cases among younger people, who have not yet been vaccinated, are also increasing,’ she said.
Currently, new infections are declining among all age groups, according to the CDC’s data tracker. But the numbers from the last two weeks are likely incomplete, its site states.
But since June, there have been more cases per capita among the 18-to-24 age group than any other age group, and that trend persists.
During briefings earlier this month, Dr Walensky highlighted outbreaks associated with team sports among school age children, especially in hard-hit Michigan, which has the second highest prevalence of infections caused by the UK’s B117 variant in the nation.
The UK’s B117 variant is now dominant in the U.S., likely driving the uptick in cases in 17 states and among young people and children.
Dr Poland predicts that things are about to get worse.
People between 18 and 24 (teal) have accounted for more Covid cases per capita than any other age group since June, and the CDC warns new infections are rising among young people due to the growing prevalence of more infectious variants
‘Case loads among the uninitiated are slowly rising, but that will become exponential and people who think they are most fine are now at the greatest risk ever from this pandemic,’ he said, referring to young, healthy people vulnerable to variants.
‘People who have refused vaccines….are now unprotected from worse viruses than a year ago.’
According to the latest survey from Kaiser Health News, published on March 31, about 20 percent of Americans are still vaccine hesitant.
Herd immunity – the point at which enough of a population is protected by immunity from infection of vaccines that a disease can no longer circulate – has widely been estimated to be around 75 percent for COVID-19.
If that’s the case, there are just enough Americans willing to get vaccinated to quell coronavirus.
But that rate of protection necessary for herd immunity varies from disease to disease – and Dr Poland suspects 75 percent is an underestimate.
In truth, the percentage of a population that needs to be immunized to reach herd immunity to COVID-19 is still unknown.
But, ‘what we do know is that a community in Brazil that had 76 percent immunity was still rapidly acquiring cases among susceptibles,’ he said.
‘Hence, we think that herd immunity with this virus is going to be something North of that. Let’s guess something in the 80 to 85 percent range, possibly higher.
‘By definition, we are unlikely to get there. Some 20 to 25 percent [of Americans] do not plan to take a vaccine, so already we can’t get there with vaccination.’
As a result, Dr Poland fears that coronavirus will become endemic, like the flu, returning annually and spiking into an epidemic in various places each year.
That’s because ‘herd immunity requires a level of spontaneous immunity,’ he says.
‘If I could wave a wand right now on Earth and 85 to 90 percent of people could have immunity and retaine immunity, problem solved.
‘But that’s not going to happen.’
So will COVID-19 become the new seasonal flu?
That will depend on how people behave.
Flu has practically disappeared this year amid the pandemic, with just 0.7 people hospitalized per every 100,000 in the U.S. Just one child died, compared to 196 in the previous flu season. It was a record low since the CDC began tracking flu in the U.S.
There were likely fewer flu tests performed and there was a slight uptick in flu vaccinations, but experts, including Dr Poland, widely credit social distancing, better hand hygiene and, of course, masks.
By comparison, an estimated 61,000 people died of flu in the 2017-2018 season – the most since 2009.
Like COVID-19 deaths, most flu fatalities are among elderly Americans. The death toll from flu is simply familiar and tolerated each year.
If pockets of outbreaks of Covid, like flu, can be contained by vaccination, behavioral measures like masks and social distancing, or a combination of the two, future cases, hospitalizations, and deaths will likely be tolerated, too – for better or worse.