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Why the coronavirus may never go away

Why the coronavirus may never go away
Drug Addiction Clinic Vita / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that the coronavirus may be around for a much longer time than the most pessimistic estimates.


"I would say in a four to five-year timeframe we could be looking at controlling this," Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO's chief scientist, told the Financial Times' Global Boardroom digital conference. Although she said that a vaccine "seems for now the best way out," she added that there are "lots of ifs and buts" about how to produce and distribute a vaccine efficiently, safely and equitably, as well as whether the virus could evolve to resist the vaccination.

Her views were echoed by Dr. Peter Piot, professor of global health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who was also speaking on the Financial Times panel. Piot told the panel that the virus could be controlled with a vaccine, but that the "elimination" of the disease "is going to require much, much more." He also argued that "we will have to find a way as societies to live with this."

In a briefing on Wednesday, WHO emergencies director Dr. Mike Ryan argued that "it is important to put this on the table: this virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away."

He added, "HIV has not gone away — but we have come to terms with the virus."

Dr. Marthe Gold, senior scholar-in-residence at the New York Academy of Medicine, spoke with Salon about the WHO's recent statements that the coronavirus may not be contained for another five years — or may not go away at all.

"I find myself in agreement with this sobering idea," Gold explained by email. "We are on a steep learning curve around SARS-CoV-2 and it makes sense to err on the side of realistic caution and make plans accordingly. If we don't achieve herd immunity (which seems unlikely given efforts to protect most people, at least in affluent nations, from infection) and we fail to get the majority of the world's population vaccinated (which seems likely, given the historically slower dissemination of public health immunization strategies to low income countries as well as the anti-vaccine movement right here in the U.S.), we may well be in for a long siege."

Dr. William Haseltine, a biologist renowned for his work in confronting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, for fighting anthrax and for advancing our knowledge of the human genome, said that it's important to clarify what it means about a virus not going away.

"There is a difference between a virus persisting in the population and a lethal pandemic," Haseltine told Salon. "First thing to say, I would be reasonably sure that we, as a globe and on a very broad population basis, can control the epidemic either by behavioral change or through pharmaceutical intervention. I don't think we're going to have this pandemic four or five years."

"That's very different from saying the virus will be eliminated," Haseltine added. "Maybe two viruses have been eliminated in history from the human population: One is smallpox. We're very fortunate that it was a global effort and we completely eliminated smallpox from the world. All the other diseases that have been plaguing us for millennia — including the bubonic plague — are still around. They aren't pandemics, but they're there. They haven't gone away. HIV, the current major pandemic, has already killed 50 million people and has impacted between 30 and 40 million more. It's still here."

Haseltine also spoke with Salon about states and countries that are beginning to reopen their economies despite the pandemic's prevalence.

"I think there is very clear guidance now on how to reopen the economy," Haseltine explained. "But if we don't get the disease under control and we reopen, the disease will come roaring back and we'll have to close back down because nobody is going to tolerate a rapid infection in the population... We would close back down again. So there has to be a balance between when is it safe to be open without triggering a second, third and fourth wave of infections or triggering a new wave of death in your community."

Haseltine was optimistic in this regard, mentioning China as a good example. "China is in the process of doing it," he explained. "A number of East Asian countries are in the process. Many European countries are trying to do it. We'll see if they're successful. But what is clear from those examples is it has to be a very slow, careful process."

President Donald Trump has urged a fast reopening of the American economy. On Thursday, in response to the Wisconsin Supreme Court striking down Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' stay-at-home order, Trump tweeted that "the Great State of Wisconsin, home to Tom Tiffany's big Congressional Victory on Tuesday, was just given another win. Its Democrat Governor was forced by the courts to let the State Open. The people want to get on with their lives. The place is bustling!"

Later on Thursday he added in a separate tweet, "Good numbers coming out of States that are opening. America is getting its life back! Vaccine work is looking VERY promising, before end of year. Likewise, other solutions!"

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