Even if enough people build natural immunity to COVID-19 by catching the highly contagious omicron variant, Dr. Anthony Fauci said it is too soon to say if this will spell an end to the pandemic.
On Monday, Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser for COVID, was asked at the online World Economic Forum if this may be the year that the virus becomes endemic, meaning it is still circulating but does not disrupt society.
While omicron seems to cause less severe disease than other variants, Fauci said the sheer volume of cases could have a meaningful effect on collective immunity, but added, “it is an open question as to whether or not omicron is going to be the live virus vaccination that everyone is hoping for, because you have such a great deal of variability with new variants emerging.”
“I would hope that that’s the case,” he said, “but that would only be the case if we don’t get another variant that eludes the immune response.”
Fauci said the evolution of the pandemic is still an open question. “The answer is: We do not know,” he said.
While cases seem to be leveling off in New York and other parts of the Northeast, they remain extremely high across the United States, averaging nearly 802,000 per day, an increase of 98% over the past two weeks. An average of nearly 156,000 people with the virus are hospitalized nationwide, a record. Deaths now exceed 1,900 per day, up 57% over two weeks.
Fauci also said that the world is still in the first of what he considered to be the five phases of the pandemic. The first is the “truly pandemic” phase, “where the whole world is really very negatively impacted,” followed by deceleration, control, elimination and eradication.
He said that only one infectious human disease has ever been eradicated: smallpox.
“That’s not going to happen with this virus,” he said.
However, once countries reach the “control” phase, when the virus becomes a “non-disruptive presence,” then the virus will be considered endemic, he said. The rhinovirus and some upper respiratory infections are examples of endemic diseases.
As omicron continues to spread at a breakneck speed, some governments seem resigned to the idea that COVID is already a fixture of daily life. In some European countries, authorities are pushing a “learn to live with it” approach that includes shorter isolation periods and the elimination of pre-departure tests for travel.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.