Despite omicron, Covid-19 will become endemic. Here’s how


With omicron rates soaring, you may find yourself despairingly asking when — or even if — this pandemic is ever going to end.

The good news is that it will end. Experts agree on that. We’re not going to totally eradicate Covid-19, but we will see it move out of the pandemic phase and into the endemic phase.

Endemicity means the virus will keep circulating in parts of the global population for years, but its prevalence and impact will come down to relatively manageable levels, so it ends up more like the flu than a world-stopping disease.

For an infectious disease to be classed in the endemic phase, the rate of infections has to more or less stabilize across years, rather than showing big, unexpected spikes as Covid-19 has been doing. “A disease is endemic if the reproductive number is stably at one,” Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray explained. “That means one infected person, on average, infects one other person.”

In general, a virus becomes endemic when we (health experts, governmental bodies, and the public) collectively decide that we’re okay with accepting the level of impact the virus has — that in other words, it no longer constitutes an active crisis.

There are some hopeful things to bear in mind. “The incredible number of infections is building up population-level immunity. That’ll be crucial in terms of muting future waves,” said Joshua Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

We do have another ace up our sleeves, which will hopefully also become available around the globe sooner rather than later: new treatments — like Pfizer’s paxlovid, recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and Merck’s molnupiravir, also FDA approved — that reduce the rates of hospitalization and death from Covid-19.

“Very important in the context of endemicity is the antiviral pills,” Michaud said. “If we have those tools, we’re looking at a very different state going into 2022. People shouldn’t feel like we’re back to square one.”

“We have a lot more tools at our disposal for dealing with this than we did in March 2020,” she said.

We’ll know endemicity has arrived when those tools — and the long, painful experience of the pandemic itself — has enabled us to fully adapt to the virus, as the virus has adapted to us.

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