In the last few weeks, two slogans have been repeated: "Variants will evolve to be milder" and "Covid will become endemic". Experts warn that neither of these things can be taken for granted.
People who say that viruses become less deadly often cite the flu. The flu viruses that caused the 1918 Spanish flu and the 2009 swine flu are no longer dangerous. The 1918 virus is thought to have become more deadly before it became milder. Over time, other viruses have become more dangerous.
It is a misconception that viruses or pathogens become milder. Prof David Robertson is the head of viral genomics and bioinformatics at the University of Glasgow.
As many copies of themselves as possible are the goal of the Viruses. It is not always in their best interests to kill their hosts, so long as they are transmitted before this happens. People who become ill with sars-coV-2 tend to die within two to three weeks. The virus doesn't care if there are casualties along the way if it doesn't evolve to make people so ill that they don't mix with other people.
It's not clear if the Sars-CoV-2 is becoming milder. Omicron appears to be less severe than the Alpha or Delta variant, but both of these variant caused more severe illness than the original Wuhan strain. Omicron did not evolve from Delta, and Delta did not evolve from Alpha.
If the pattern continues, another variant could pop out in six months, and it could be worse. It is important not to assume that Omicron will be the end of the evolution.
Omicron may be so transmissible that it has hit a ceiling, which will make future versions struggle to out compete it. People were saying the same thing about Delta a few months ago. Omicron is likely to keep evolving. Robertson said that as Omicron infections grow, it is harder for the first Omicron to be as successful as it is now.
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Is it possible that the disease could become endemic? Politicians tend to use this as a way to forget that Covid-19 exists. What actually means is a disease that is present but not out of control.
Stephen Griffin, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Leeds, said that smallpox was endemic. Measles and mumps are endemic, but dependent on vaccination. Endemic doesn't mean that something loses its teeth.
The virus may become less likely to cause disease as more and more people develop immunity to it. It could evolve again. We are not close to that yet, but the good news is that the more people are vaccined, the less likely the virus is to evolve. There are a lot of unvaccinated individuals in the UK, and it is not known how long the protection from boosters will last.
The idea that we will achieve endemicity anytime soon also seems a little bit counter to the fact that we have just had several weeks of massive growth, and prior to that, we were still seeing massive growth of Delta.
Transforming Covid into a disease that we can live with requires more than a national vaccine campaign and a belief that we can live with it; it requires a global effort to improve the detection and prevention of new versions of the disease. If we are mixing indoors, it requires more investment in air purification and ventilation.
Everyone hopes that the coronaviruses will evolve to become milder, and that Covid becomes endemic, so that we don't have to worry about it. These are hopes, not facts, and repeating them won't make them happen any faster.