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Scientists believe the pandemic will be over even if the new coronavirus continues to exist

This article was published on
July 30, 2021

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Vaccination protects us from getting sick from SARS-CoV-2, a virus that humanity will eventually live with, as we already do with colds and seasonal flu. And the sooner we are all vaccinated, the sooner it will cease to be a serious problem.

Vaccination protects us from getting sick from SARS-CoV-2, a virus that humanity will eventually live with, as we already do with colds and seasonal flu. And the sooner we are all vaccinated, the sooner it will cease to be a serious problem.

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Information and context on vaccines. Article written by the science journalists of the SINC agency with the analysis and review of expert sources.

The pandemic will end, and for that to happen, the new coronavirus will not have to be wiped off the planet. The scientific community agrees that SARS-CoV-2 will become an endemic respiratory virus, just as, for example, seasonal influenza already is.

“We will probably see an evolution ofthe virus,” says Beatriz Mothe, an infectious diseases specialist at the Germans Trias i Pujol Hospital in Badalona, near Barcelona. “The virus will adapt,” she predicts.

There are several reasons for this, but they can be summarised into two: vaccination will not fully eliminate SARS-CoV-2 and the virus will probably evolve to continue to infect in a milder form, without killing the host.

On the one hand, current vaccines prevent the most severe forms of covid-19, but they have not yet shown how long immunity will last or whether they are capable of nipping virus transmission in the bud. Despite not being ‘sterilising’, numerous studies in different countries have found some indirect protection through vaccination. The decrease in infections and virus transmission is due to the viral load of vaccinated people being lower and lasting for a shorter period of time.

On the other hand, viruses need a host like humans to replicate and survive. Therefore, their evolutionary logic is not to kill the host, but to continue infecting in order to reproduce in the host.

“This virus is here to stay, we will continue to live with it,” says Sonia Zúñiga, a virologist at the National Biotechnology Centre of the Spanish National Research Council (CNB-CSIC). Some of the factors that will influence the conversion of the new coronavirus into an old acquaintance are its speed of spread and the rate of vaccination.

An article in Nature magazine added other arguments to support the thesis that the coronavirus will not disappear from our lives. Some of the factors that may reinforce the circulation of SARS-CoV-2 on the planet are the reluctance of some to get vaccinated and a possible change inthe behaviour of those already vaccinated as they feel safer. It is therefore important that following vaccination we continue to maintain protective measures: masks, hygiene, ventilation and limiting social interactions.

The end of the acute phase of the pandemic will come with the generalisation of vaccination, which must be extended to everyone. “The global response is at a critical stage,” says a statement from the World HealthOrganisation (WHO), which warns of the global inequity of vaccination and urges an end to the current pandemic.

Studies estimate that this will not happen until 2024 because of an unequal distribution of doses, according to the Duke University Center for Global Health Innovation (USA).

Thereafter, a projection published in early 2021 in the journal Science hypothesises that the virus would circulate less and cause less severe symptoms.

The authors of this study liken SARS-CoV-2 to four other coronaviruses, its ‘first cousins’, which cause the common cold, and differentiate it from its predecessors SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, which emerged in 2002 and 2012.

The post-pandemic phase will be influenced by factors such as reinfection, seasonality, and competitionwith other viruses for dominance, according to another paper published in late 2020, also in Science.

Surviving at all costs: new variants

The emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants may complicate the picture. Although it mutates less than other viruses, such as influenza or HIV, new, more contagious variants have already emerged, some of them more deadly, as some studies suggest. Its mutations focus on the S protein in its corona to better latch onto human cells and continue infecting.

“In a sense, we are giving the virus opportunities to acquire new mutations and evolutionary advantages, such as new variants that transmit better,” says Francisco Díez, a researcher at the National Microbiology Centre of the Carlos III Institute of Health (CNM-ISCIII).

For example, the D614G mutation appeared in January 2020 and within half a year became the dominant variant worldwide, replacing the original virus that was detected in China, according to the WHO. This new version of the virus was more infectious and transmissible than the previous one. All current variants are now derived from it.

One of them is the Alpha variant(B.1.1.7), which adds the N501Y mutation, first identified in south east England, which, in less than two weeks, had already spread throughout the UK, also according to the WHO.

Or in South Africa, where the Beta (B.1.351) variant, which includes additional mutations in the S-crown protein, such as E484K and K417N, has been associated with a higher viral load, which would translate into a much higher transmission capacity, notes the WHO.

“These are the weapons the virus has to survive: to modifyits genome,” explains Díez, who has studied the genetic diversity of the new coronavirus in Spain since the start of the pandemic.

“If the virus continues along these lines, it’s very difficult to eliminate, as is the case with the flu virus,” stresses Zúñiga. Hopefully, it will live with us and the serious cases it causes will be fewer and fewer.

As a result, beyond vaccines, which may have to be updated from time to time, treatments will also be key to treating the most serious cases, which need special attention.

This article is also available in Spanish.

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