Back in spring 2020, many of us thought the pandemic would blow over in just a few weeks. How innocent those days were. Instead, the global crisis has dragged on for a whopping two years, caused millions of deaths and wreaked havoc on pretty much every industry.
But fortunately we now live in a very different world to spring 2020. So, with vaccines, far wider exposure to the virus and variants (seemingly) getting weaker, is there finally an end in sight? With the announcement that all remaining Covid rules in the UK could be dropped in the coming weeks, it looks increasingly likely that 2022 could (touch wood) see the end of the pandemic.
After several optimistic news stories got our hopes up a bit, we enlisted the help of Dr Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at the UK’s Leicester Royal Infirmary and associate professor at Leicester University, to ground our expectations. He helped us answer a few questions about a potential ‘end’ to the pandemic – namely what it could look like, and whether we can expect any kind of a return to ‘normal’ anytime soon.
What does an ‘end’ to the pandemic even look like?
This is a tough one, but it might be getting clearer. Some viruses just peter out over time, eventually disappearing completely. Others are seasonal, so fade when the climate changes. Covid, however, is neither seasonal nor likely to simply peter out. As we’ve seen, Covid hits all year round and, being airborne and highly transmissible, has spread to pretty much every corner of the globe.
‘We won’t be able to use time or seasonality for defining the end of the pandemic,’ says Dr Tang. Any end to the pandemic, he adds, will most likely be when ‘the virus has become so mild that at some point we don’t need to vaccinate everybody, perhaps just the most vulnerable, like we do with flu’.
In future, Covid will likely mutate into a weaker virus and become ‘clinically mild’, with a mortality rate similar to flu. In this case, Dr Tang explains, ‘we may learn to live with a certain level of excess mortality due to Covid plus flu season’. This may well signal the end of the pandemic as we currently know it.
Will Covid itself be around for ever?
Almost certainly. Covid is so widespread, and has so many asymptomatic cases, that at this stage it would be exceptionally difficult to wipe out. But, over time, the deadliness of the virus is likely to be greatly reduced. Like most viruses, Covid will ‘adapt and become milder’, says Dr Tang, eventually ‘feeling like influenza for most people – and then we just learn to live with it’.
What about the WHO? Will it declare the pandemic over?
The WHO stated very recently that it believed that the ‘acute phase’ of the pandemic could end in 2022. For that to happen, Covid would have to become milder and/or ‘endemic’ – meaning that it becomes something that is constant throughout a population, with largely predictable patterns. In other words, it becomes something we live with.
But it’s worth bearing in mind that even when the WHO declares the pandemic over, that doesn’t mean it’s over for everyone. Dr Tang says that, at the WHO, ‘the G7/G8/G20 lobby will always have the loudest voice’. ‘If and when the end of the pandemic is declared,’ he adds, ‘that will be based on not every country’s input.’
In short, priority will likely given to countries in Europe, North America and East Asia. The same countries that suffer from inequality in terms of quality of healthcare and vaccine provision also have very little lobbying power at the WHO. ‘Everybody wants the virus to end,’ says Dr Tang, ‘but it doesn’t mean that the virus won’t still be raging through some parts of South America and Africa.’
So, is 2022 the year things come to some sort of end?
‘That’s a crystal ball question’, says Dr Tang. And it most certainly is – but it’s the one we all want answered. ‘I think that the consensus will come probably towards the end of the year, when you see a lot of the developed countries start to agree that the virus is so mild that they don’t need to continue with social-distancing measures, masking, vaccinations or boosters,’ he adds.
In other words, for a lot of people – but, crucially, not everyone – 2022 may well be the year that things start looking up. The most obvious ways that society is affected by the pandemic, from lockdowns and working from home to masks and vaccines, may start to disappear. Heading up this approach to ‘living with Covid’ is the UK, which recently announced (somewhat controversially, we should add) that it would drop the legal requirement to self-isolate within the next two weeks.
But throughout all this, it’s important to remember that Covid is still, more than two years later, the subject of significant scientific debate. ‘Experts disagree,’ Dr Tang says, and while he is one of the UK’s leading clinical virologists, he’s also just one voice. And if we’ve learnt anything over the last couple of years, it’s definitely, definitely not wise to get your hopes up – or not too much, anyway.