Is Covid endemic? If the pandemic has turned endemic and the difference explained - according to an expert
The World Health Organization defines pandemics, epidemics, and endemics based on a disease’s rate of spread.
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Covid cases continue to be confirmed in the UK, with a recent rise linked to the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron sub variants.
But has the coronavirus pandemic now become endemic, like malaria and the flu? And if not, could that be the case soon?
We spoke to an expert to find out more about the current status of Covid-19.
How is ‘endemic’ defined?
An endemic disease is an outbreak that is consistently present, but limited to a particular region, which makes the disease spread and rates predictable.
For example, malaria is considered endemic in certain countries and regions.
In contrast, the World Health Organisation WHO declares a pandemic when a disease’s growth is exponential, which means growth rate skyrockets and each day cases grow more than the previous day. It means a virus covers a wide area, affecting several countries and populations.
An epidemic, however, is a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes an epidemic as an unexpected increase in the number of disease cases in a specific geographical area.
For example, yellow fever, smallpox, measles and polio are all prime examples of epidemics that have occurred in the past.
An epidemic disease doesn’t necessarily have to be contagious as epidemics can refer to a disease or other specific health-related behaviour with rates above the expected occurrence in a community or region.
The WHO defines pandemics, epidemics, and endemics based on a disease’s rate of spread.
A pandemic goes across international boundaries compared to regional epidemics, which is why the Covid crisis was named a pandemic in 2020.
Is Covid endemic?
Martin Michaelis, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Kent, said it is “too early to tell” if Covid has become endemic, but that based on all available evidence it is “likely” it will become one.
He added that because Covid-19 keeps spreading, with “new variants continuously evolving that can spread among people with immune protection derived from vaccinations and previous infections”, there is “no reason to believe that this process should stop naturally”.
It is also possible that Covid has spread to further species that we are not yet aware of and therefore, since the virus can be reintroduced from new animal reservoirs into humans, such reservoirs make the eradication of Covid “even less likely”, Prof Michaelis added.
He also noted that being endemic does not mean Covid will become “less dangerous”.
For example, he said it is estimated that influenza viruses that cause the flu had been circulating for thousands of years in humans before they caused the Spanish flu in 1918-1920 - a pandemic that resulted in an estimated 50-100 million deaths.
Prof Michaelis added that endemic “just means that a pathogen continuously circulates in a population without external introduction, not that it would become milder”.