COVID-19 might stick around for a while, according to the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Robert Redfield told CNN recently that COVID-19 could work its way into the mix of diseases that Americans have to deal with.
“This virus is probably with us beyond this season, or beyond this year,” he said.
“And I think eventually, the virus will find a foothold and we will get community-based transmission and you can start to think of it in the sense like seasonal flu.”
Not everyone agrees, though. It’s too soon to say for sure whether that will happen, said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the division of infectious diseases at Queen’s University.
“One possibility is that we will control it, kind of like we did with SARS,” he said.
“If it peters out and disappears and there’s no ongoing transmission afterwards, it will just kind of disappear off the radar like SARS did, because it was sort of a chance, random event.”
Right now, it’s looking like China might still be able to contain the virus, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, but that could definitely still change.
“It does appear that these massive public health initiatives have slowed down the spread of this infection,” he said. “But the big question is, will it be enough to actually halt this infection and prevent further spread throughout the world?”
If containment doesn’t work, Evans said, then the virus would become much more common worldwide. “Certainly the scenario of it emerging as yet another respiratory virus that will circulate around during the winter is certainly a plausible one.”
It’s hard to say at this point how damaging that would be.
Bogoch points to the limited information on the severity of the disease. Right now, he said, it looks like approximately one to two per cent of cases are fatal, which is fairly high, though that estimate could very easily change as we learn more about the disease.
As of Thursday morning, there were more than 2,100 deaths attributed to COVID-19 worldwide, with more than 75,000 people infected — mostly in China, according to the World Health Organization.
The problem, Bogoch said, is we don’t know much about people who had symptoms so mild that they never went to the doctor and got counted in those totals.
“We don’t actually know how many people have truly been infected with this disease, mainly because of the under-appreciation of the number of people that might just have mild illness and aren’t coming to medical attention.”
If the virus did circulate widely, people likely wouldn’t have much immunity to it, Evans said. “There would be a large susceptible population. So for the first year or two, there would probably be a large number of cases, albeit fairly mild disease in healthy young- to middle-age adults.”
Then, as the population built up immunity, transmission might diminish, he thinks.
Ideally, we might be able to prevent the virus from circulating with a vaccine, Bogoch said, something that’s being worked on but is likely at least a year away.
“The long-term strategy is prevention with vaccination,” he said. “That would be the ideal long-term strategy.”
It’s also important to plan ahead for outbreaks like this, and whatever future viruses might hit us, he said.
“There’s definitely evidence that this will happen again. So the time to really fund the research and the development of early detection strategies, management strategies, prevention strategies, was yesterday.”