The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief said it’s possible the new coronavirus may be here to stay, warning it’s impossible to predict when the pandemic might be controlled.
“This virus may never go away,” Dr. Michael Ryan said in a news briefing on Wednesday. He said that the number of people infected by COVID-19 so far is relatively low.
Without a vaccine, he said it could take years for the population to build up sufficient levels of immunity to it.
“I think it’s important to put this on the table,” he said.
“This virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities,” he said, noting that other previously novel diseases such as HIV have never disappeared, but that effective treatments have been developed to allow people to live with the disease.
Ryan said there remains hope that an effective vaccine will be developed, but even then, it would require a huge amount of work to produce the shots and distribute them worldwide to people willing to be immunized.
“Every single one of those steps is fraught with challenges.”
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Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said that she recognized some people were “in a state of feeling quite some despair,” but pointed out that stopping the virus even without medical interventions was possible.
“The trajectory of this outbreak is in our hands,” she said. “We have seen some countries bring the virus under control.”
Separately, the European Medicines Agency, which approves medicines for the European Union, said a vaccine could be approved in about a year under an “optimistic” scenario.
One thing that could help will be accurate antibody tests to establish who has already had the disease and therefore may have from a degree of immunity.
Britain confirmed on Thursday it is in talks with Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG to buy its test, following the lead of the European Union and United States, which have already given it their preliminary approval.
What remains unclear is how many orders have already been placed by other countries and when those tests would arrive.
“We are now moving as fast as we can to discuss with Roche purchasing of those but I can’t give you an exact date when we’ll be able to start rolling them out,” said Edward Argar, Britain’s junior health minister.
As of Thursday morning, there were more than 4.3 million reported coronavirus cases worldwide, with more than 297,000 deaths, according to a tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University.