Experts Believe COVID-19 Is Likely to Become Endemic — Here's What That Means

It's been months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and after so much loss and uncertainty, people are understandably desperate for it to end. Unfortunately, top scientists don't think the novel coronavirus will fade away anytime soon. In fact, it seems more likely that COVID-19 will become endemic — meaning it will continue to exist in society just as other viruses have for years.

CNBC reported that, during a meeting with the UK's National Security Strategy Committee, chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance cast doubt on ever eradicating the virus, despite the ongoing race for an effective vaccine. "The notion of eliminating COVID from anywhere is not right, because it will come back," Vallance said. "We can't be certain, but I think it's unlikely we will end up with a truly sterilizing vaccine, [that is] something that completely stops infection, and it's likely this disease will circulate and be endemic, that's my best assessment."

According to the Centers For Disease Control, endemic refers to a disease or infectious agent's constant presence or usual prevalence in a population. For example, varicella zoster — the virus that causes chickenpox — is considered to be endemic in the US. It isn't eradicated but instead is controlled and mitigated through a highly effective vaccine. While it's unclear just how effective a COVID-19 vaccine will be, it's an important step in reducing the spread, just as the flu shot is in minimizing influenza cases each year.

"Clearly as management becomes better, as you get vaccination which would decrease the chance of infection and the severity of disease . . . this then starts to look more like annual flu than anything else, and that may be the direction we end up going," Vallance said of COVID-19. He also noted that smallpox is the only disease in history that has been completely eradicated through an effective vaccine. (It was formally declared eradicated in 1980, after nearly 200 years of inoculations.)

Vallance is not alone in his assessment. Officials at the World Health Organization warned in May that the virus may never go away. More recently, Columbia University researchers Jeffrey Shaman and Marta Galanti wrote a paper exploring the possibility that COVID-19 could become endemic. "Should reinfection prove commonplace, and barring a highly effective vaccine delivered to most of the world's population, SARS-CoV-2 will likely become endemic," the authors wrote. "Whether reinfections will be commonplace, how often they will occur, how contagious reinfected individuals will be, and whether the risk of severe clinical outcomes changes with subsequent infection remain to be understood." While the idea of COVID-19 becoming endemic is scary, it's important to remember that treatments, too, will evolve and improve as time goes on.

POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHO, CDC, and local public health departments.