Scientists Study Past Pandemics to Identify How COVID-19 Will End

Scientists Study Past Pandemics to Identify How COVID-19 Will End

With the COVID-19 pandemic around for over two years, the resounding question everyone’s waiting to be answered is “when will the pandemic end?” While there is no solid and sure date of its transition to endemicity, scientists are hopeful that it will begin within the year, especially with new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths steadily dropping.

While we’re all curious to know when we can bid COVID-19 farewell and resume life pre-pandemic, the scientific community is asking a different question. The answer to “how will COVID-19 end” is what scientists are currently exploring by looking back and searching for clues from past epidemics. 

Three Types of Endings and What is Predicted for COVID-19

Scientists studying past epidemics identify three types of endings that may or may not occur at the same time: 

  • Medical End: When the virus gradually loses its power and diminishes 
  • Political End: When governments relax or completely cease prevention and protection measures 
  • Social End: When people begin to move on from the disease and its impact

In the United States, it looks like the different types of endings are beginning to come to light, taking insight from current vaccination counts, rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, and more relaxed federal health mandates. 

As of writing, 65.8% of the American population has been fully vaccinated and 25% have received their booster shots. Partly, this contributed to the plummeting of new COVID-19 cases (40% decline), hospitalizations (30% decline), and deaths. Several states are also dropping mask mandates and are beginning to move past a crisis response

Clues From Past Epidemics

Every epidemic is different with regards to factors like their origins, effects, transmissibility, and the specifics of how they ended. But according to University of Oxford researcher Erica Charters, they all show recurring themes that can provide insights into future epidemics.

Influenza

Before COVID-19, influenza was hailed as the deadliest pandemic agent, taking the lives of 675,000 Americans in 1918-1919, 116,000 in 1975-1958, 100,000 in 1969, and 13,000 in 2009-2010. In the most recent flu surge, the World Health Organization began declaring the end of the pandemic when cases returned to customary seasonal patterns. 

Over time, the influenza virus gradually receded as people built immunity, and experts think the same can happen with COVID-19.

HIV

HIV or human immunodeficiency virus, was the leading cause of death in 1994, affecting Americans 25 to 44 years of age. It wasn’t until later that treatments for it became available, turning the deadly disease into a chronic condition that can be managed. 

As treatments and vaccines for COVID-19 become more widespread, a similar trend can be expected, where COVID-19 turns from a health emergency to a manageable illness.

Zika

The Zika virus, which initially emerged in Brazil and caused an outbreak of infections, was declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization when scientists revealed that infection caused not only mild symptoms but also birth defects that affected brain development. 

Zika made its way to the U.S. by mosquito transmission, infecting a total of 36,000 in U.S. territories, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A little short of two years after Zika emerged, cases died down and the virus gradually but quickly disappeared. Experts believe that the general population developed immunity against the virus, which led to its end. 

COVID-19 immunity has been proven to be obtained from vaccines or prior infections. In vaccinated individuals and those who become infected with COVID-19 for the second or third time, the effects of the virus become milder and milder to the point that it can be treated with symptomatic therapy. 

Initial Speculations on COVID-19’s End

Scientists are seeing tell-tale signs that COVID-19 is slowly making its transition to endemicity, solidified by the decline in new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. While we’re on our way to the finish line, the World Health Organization is yet to determine if enough countries have seen significant declines in cases before deciding to announce the end of the international health emergency. 

While the U.S. is in a good place, other countries such as Hong Kong, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, are currently facing rising COVID-19 cases — a sign that the global threat is not yet over. 

According to Pan American Health Organization’s director, Dr. Carissa Etienne, many parts of the world still need access to vaccines and medications. Low-income countries are relying on vaccine-sharing arrangements and are yet to mass vaccinate their populations. 

Although the end of this pandemic seems to be near, we’re not out of the woods just yet. While many people remain unvaccinated, the risk of COVID-19 developing new variants and causing another surge is still very possible. We should continue approaching the pandemic with caution and protect ourselves by wearing masks, keeping our distance, and staying home.


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