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Will COVID-19 pandemic ever end?

By Bayo Ogunmupe
07 October 2021   |   3:33 am
When will COVID-19 pandemic end? Updated perspectives of McKinsey experts tender their views on when coronavirus pandemic will end based on the latest data.

(Photo by TONY KARUMBA / AFP)

When will COVID-19 pandemic end? Updated perspectives of McKinsey experts tender their views on when coronavirus pandemic will end based on the latest data. Among high income countries, cases caused by the Delta variant reversed the transition towards normalcy first in the UK and then across the world. Analysts suggest that the Delta variant has effectively moved overall herd immunity out of reach in most countries for the time being.

However, as the UK has weathered a wave of Delta- driven cases, it may be able to resume the transition toward normalcy. The end of COVID-19 might be the point at which it can be managed as an endemic disease. However, the emergence of a significant new variant is the greatest risk which could hinder the end of COVID-19 as a pandemic. The data available for this judgment was correct as of August 23, 2021.

Since March in this assessment series, many countries in North America and Western Europe experienced a measure of relief from the pandemic when some locales embarked on the second quarter transition toward normalcy. This progress was enabled by rapid vaccine rollout, with most countries in Asia, Europe, the Americas even including Africa, overcoming their slower starts during the first quarter of 2021. Even the share of the immunized percentage has been too small for them to achieve herd immunity, because of the emergence of the more lethal Delta variant and the persistence of vaccine hesitancy.

Among developed countries, the Delta variant reversed the transition toward normalcy, first in the UK where the surge in cases during summer, led authorities to delay lifting restrictions. The Delta variant increased the burden of disease, causing more hospitalizations and deaths. Delta’s high transmissibility also makes herd immunity harder to achieve. Moreover, a larger fraction of a given population must be immune to keep delta from spreading within the population. Expert analysis supports the view that the Delta variant has effectively moved herd immunity out of reach in most countries for now, although some regions may come close to it.

While vaccines used in the West including Africa remain highly effective at preventing the COVID-19 disease, recent data from Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States have raised new questions about the ability of these vaccines to prevent infection from the Delta variant. Blood tests suggest that immunity may wane relatively quickly. This prompted some countries to start offering booster doses to high risk populations or planning for their rollout. Indeed, data from the US also suggest that vaccinated people who become infected with the Delta variant may transmit it easily.

These novel findings have raised questions about when the pandemic will end. However, the United Kingdom’s experience suggests once a country has weathered the Delta wave of cases, it may relax public health restrictions and resume the transition to normalcy. Beyond that, a more realistic endpoint might arrive not when herd immunity is achieved but when nations can control COVID-19 enough to enable them manage the pandemic as an endemic disease. But the greatest risk to a country’s power is the emergence of a new variant that is more transmissible, more liable to cause hospital deaths or more capable of infecting people who have been vaccinated.

What’s more, raising vaccination rates will be essential to achieving a transition to normalcy. Vaccine hesitancy, however, has proven to be a persistent challenge both to preventing the Delta variant and to reaching the herd immunity. Which is why the US has fully approved Pfizer’s vaccine in order to help increase vaccination rates. Also in the coming months, vaccines will be made available to children in order to protect a group comprising a significant share of the population. In any event, even without herd immunity, a transition to normalcy is possible. Thus, transition would gradually normalize aspects of social and economic life with some health restrictions remaining in effect as people return to pre-pandemic activities.

But as the more infectious Delta variant becomes more rampant, more people within the population must be vaccinated before herd immunity can be achieved. Since the Delta variant has put herd immunity out of reach, endemic COVID-19 may be a more realistic endpoint than herd immunity. When COVID-19 becomes endemic and societies decide, much as they have with influenza and other diseases, COVID-19 can be managed as a constant threat rather than an exceptional one requiring society- defining interventions.

A step toward this endpoint is in shifting the focus of public health efforts from managing case counts to managing severe illnesses and deaths. Singapore’s government has announced it will make this shift, and more countries are expected to follow its lead. Other researchers have compared COVID-19 with other diseases such as influenza, as a way to understand when endemicity might occur. In the USA, COVID-19 mortality rates in June and July neared the ten year average rates for influenza. Today, the burden of COVID-19 diseases in the USA is similar to the average burden of influenza over the last decade. This helps to illustrate the relative threat posed by the two diseases pointing to the reality that COVID-19 will never go. It has become an endemic disease.