Are we anywhere near the end of COVID? Notable epidemiologist says, “no”

Back in the spring and early summer, the phrase “post-COVID” was getting thrown around. New case numbers in the U.S. were falling, vaccination rates were rising, and families were reconnecting, often for the first time in more than a year.

Then, the situation took a turn. The contagious Delta variant drove cases back up as vaccination rates stalled. In some parts of the country, such as Texas and Florida, we once again heard stories about overwhelmed hospitals. You may be asking, “When will this be over?”

The truth is, it’s hard to say. But one epidemiologist says we are not near the end of COVID.

“I think we’re closer to the beginning than we are to the end [of the pandemic], and that’s not because the variant that we’re looking at right now is going to last that long,” said Larry Brilliant, who was part of the World Health Organization team that helped wipe out smallpox, in an interview with CNBC.

Here’s why Brilliant and others think we still have a ways to go and why predicting the end of the pandemic is difficult.

a visualization of the covid-19 virus

Variants and super variants

As we saw with the more transmissible Delta variant, the virus can mutate. The CDC says some variants will emerge and not change much, but others, like Delta, will spread faster and cause a rise in infections. Currently, cases from the Delta variant appear to be declining.

Brilliant told CNBC vaccines appeared to hold up against the Delta variant.  A recent Yale study also found that the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines protected against variants, including Delta.

Infectious disease expert and Columbia University epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman told the New York Times that Delta is “running out of people to infect.”

However, that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over.

“I do caution people that this is the Delta variant and we have not run out of Greek letters so there may be more to come,” Brilliant said in his CNBC interview.

For example, cases in the U.K. are rising again, and experts are calling for research into whether or not the emergence of the Delta Plus variant is more transmissible. Currently, it’s too soon to tell.

Human behavior, including vaccine hesitancy

Part of the reason it’s difficult to predict the end of the pandemic is that it depends on human behavior, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky says.

It’s getting cold in the northeast, where COVID rates have been mostly low. People will move indoors and potentially travel to gather for the holidays, which could increase infection rates.

Walensky and other experts say getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent COVID-related hospitalization and death, including against the Delta variant.

However, hesitancy remains a concern. Recently, outgoing National Institute of Health Director Francis Collins told MSNBC they underestimated vaccine hesitancy and wished they “had somehow seen that coming and come up with some kind of myth-buster approach.”

According to the CDC and other experts, ways to protect yourself and others and curb the pandemic include:

  • Wearing a mask
  • Testing before and after gatherings
  • Washing your hands
  • Getting tested if you are experiencing symptoms, including a fever, cough, or breathing difficulties
  • Keeping get-togethers outdoors when possible

Vaccine access

The United States may have a ton of vaccine, but COVID-19 is a global pandemic. About 48% of the worldwide population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but less than 3% of low-income countries have received at least one dose.

“Unless we vaccinate everyone in 200 plus countries, there will still be new variants,” Brilliant told CNBC.

He also predicted COVID-19 would be here forever, just like the flu.

a woman receiving her covid-19 vaccine

Waning immunity

New research shows that the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness wanes after six months. Recently, the CDC approved booster shots for select groups of people six months after they had received their Pfizer vaccine. These groups include:

  • All individuals 65 and older
  • People 18 and over who work in specific settings, such as hospitals
  • People 18 and over with certain underlying conditions, including pregnancy

The FDA has also unanimously approved Moderna COVID-19 boosters to people 65 and up and other adults who work in certain settings or have specific conditions.

The hope is boosters will mitigate the effects of waning immunity, though it’s something that health officials will need to continuously monitor.

Brilliant stressed to CNBC that people 65 and over who were vaccinated more than six months ago should not hesitate to get their booster.

“It is this category of people that we’ve seen create multiple mutations when the virus goes through their body,” he said.

One epidemiologist says we are not near the end of COVID. It’s hard to predict a definitive end date for the pandemic. Human behavior, such as masking in high-risk settings, vaccine hesitancy, and vaccine access, will all play a role. Though the Delta surge from the summer currently appears to be tapering, new variants could emerge, and factors like holiday travel could also cause a spike in cases. Ultimately, experts say vaccination is the best way to prevent hospitalization and death, even if breakthrough infections occur. There’s also a call to monitor waning immunity, and some individuals can receive booster shots. If you have concerns about COVID-19 vaccines, booster shots, or what is safe and what isn’t, it’s best to speak with a healthcare provider.

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