Trevor Bedford, computational virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center—and widely regarded expert on coronavirus variants—wrote a useful Twitter thread this week. In the thread, Bedford provides his take on the “COVID-19 endgame.” In other words, what will happen once the virus reaches endemic levels? (Endemic here meaning, the virus is still circulating but it’s not infecting enough people to cause major concern.)
First of all, COVID-19 will become endemic in different places at different times, Bedford says. In the U.S., where over half the population is vaccinated, we’re closer to endemicity than other nations.
Then, endemicity itself will be a push-and-pull between two things: vaccination levels and the virus’ ability to spread through the population. The Delta variant—which is much more contagious than the original coronavirus—will need to be countered by a lot of vaccination. Bedford also suggests that immunity (from vaccination and prior infection) will likely drop at least somewhat from one year to the next, like what we see now for the flu.
The U.S. will likely still see a lot of COVID-19 infections each year, Bedford says. They’ll likely be more common during a specific “season,” like how our flu season takes place in the fall and winter. Most infections will be “relatively mild,” he says, but with enough virus transmission, some people will get seriously ill.
Overall, Bedford suggests that COVID-19 will become similar to the flu—not comparable to cancer or heart disease, he says, but “still a substantial public health burden.” And his estimates of annual deaths do not mention Long COVID, another dimension of the potential health burden that yearly COVID-19 outbreaks may cause.
(We know that vaccination reduces Long COVID risk, but a lot of other information about this condition remains unknown.)