When Will the COVID-19 Pandemic End?
With many parts of the world starting to shift towards endemic COVID-19, the question of when the pandemic will be over or whether it is already over is raised more often than ever. Indeed, the past few months have seen pandemic measures be removed all around the world, and public spaces reopen after two years. Despite the circulation of less fatal Omicron variants and the development of second-generation vaccines, efficient treatments, and convenient diagnostic tests; the potential emergence of more pathogenic, infectious, immune-evasive, or vaccine-resistance variants together with waning immunity levels and vaccine inequity continue to blur our vision regarding the next stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although much remains unknown about the future of the pandemic, data on its current tendencies and the global immunity level could help inform us on likely scenarios. Read along to find out more about the current tendencies of the COVID-19 pandemic, the current state of the global pandemic response, our estimated immunity level, and the latest advancements in vaccines, therapeutics, and tests against COVID-19.
What is the current state of the global pandemic response?
As of August 2022, China is the only large country adopting a zero-COVID-19 strategy. In China, strict pandemic measures such as school closures, workplace closures, public transport closures, obligatory mask use, travel restrictions, and bans on public events remain in use. Although mild policies regarding mask use, testing, and contact tracing are still executed in some countries outside of China, much of the world has largely or completely removed pandemic measures and restrictions. Despite being burdened heavily by the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 outbreaks, most countries in Europe have not returned to pandemic measures. In fact, the COVID-19 Stringency Index by Our World in Data, which is a composite measure of nine metrics including school, workplace, and public transport closures; restrictions on public gatherings, events, internal/external travel; stay-at-home restrictions, demonstrates that whereas most North American and European countries have a score below 25/100, the stringency score of China is 73.61/100.
What are the current tendencies of case counts and mortality rates around the world?
Although the now-dominant Omicron subvariants, especially BA.4 and BA.5, have challenged the world with their enhanced infectivity and ability of immune evasion, the burden of severe disease and death remains low due to the lower pathogenicity of the Omicron variants relative to the Delta variant. According to Our World in Data, the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases was recorded on January 24, 2022, with 434.51 infected per million people. While it has displayed mild fluctuations after early June, the rate of new COVID-19 cases has largely reduced following its peak in late January. On August 21, 105.19 new COVID-19 cases per million people have been recorded worldwide. On the other hand, data shows that the highest rate of new deaths caused by COVID-19 was recorded on January 26, 2021, with 1.87 deaths per million people. Despite demonstrating smaller peaks and fluctuations throughout 2021 and early 2022, the figure has decreased continuously after mid-February 2022. On August 21, the rate of COVID-19-linked deaths was recorded as 0.33 per million people. As such, this data may illustrate both the viral characteristics of Omicron subvariants and the efficacy of vaccination against severe disease and death.
What is our current level of immunity against COVID-19?
Immunity reduces the risk of onward transmission, severe disease, hospitalization, and fatality. It can be acquired through vaccination, previous infection with SARS-CoV-2, or both. With regards to the source of immunity, several studies have demonstrated that immunity gained through primary vaccination and boosters was more efficient in neutralizing SARS-CoV-2 than that gained through natural infection (Yu et al., 2022). In fact, the World Health Organization has reported that, as unvaccinated people have been at the greatest risk for severe symptoms and death, the proportion of unvaccinated people with previous infections in a country is roughly correlated with its overall COVID-19 mortality. There is also some evidence that hybrid immunity induced by both vaccination and natural infection could provide more effective and prolonged protection against COVID-19 than vaccination alone, which can explain why some countries with strategies combining vaccination and natural immunity may have higher levels of community immunity.
Regardless of its source, however, immunity fades gradually with the passage of time and if a new variant escapes the immunity induced by vaccination and previous infection with a former version of the virus. Indeed, the sharp upsurge in new COVID-19 cases, increase in COVID-linked deaths, and the overall drop in immunity against SARS-CoV-2 observed in late 2021 can be linked to the emergence of the Omicron variant. Even in countries with largely vaccinated populations such as Italy, Canada, and Portugal, the level of immunity may decrease over time, especially with the drops in the pace of booster uptake. Thus, the rate, timing, and rollout of vaccines and boosters remain critical for the reduction of transmission, hospitalization, and mortality rates.
What are the latest advancements in vaccines and diagnostic tests?
Researchers from various pharmaceutical companies and universities are currently working on developing second-generation Omicron-containing vaccines that induce a high level of the immune response against specifically Omicron subvariants, especially BA.4 and BA.5. A bivalent vaccine by Moderna, which contains equal parts ancestral SARS-CoV-2 vaccine and Omicron-targeting vaccine, has recently been granted approval in the UK for adult booster doses, and is soon expected to be approved in other countries. You can find more information on Moderna’s bivalent vaccine and other innovative vaccines under development at our previous blog.
On the other hand, with the development and rollout of rapid antigen tests and rapid antibody tests, testing for COVID-19 has increasingly become decentralized. Rapid antigen tests, including our RapidFor™ Antigen Rapid Test Kit, eliminate the requirement for laboratory equipment and highly trained personnel and offer an accurate, convenient, and quick method to check for active infections with SARS-CoV-2 wherever and whenever needed. Alongside point-of-care (POTC) testing for professional use, some rapid antigen tests also allow for self-testing at home. Further, combination tests, including our SARS-CoV-2 + Flu A/B + RSV Combo Rapid Test Kit, enable the simultaneous rapid detection and differentiation of infections with SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory viruses with similar symptoms. Finally, rapid antibody tests, such as our RapidFor™ Rapid IgG/IgM Test Kit, can quickly detect the level of antibodies associated with immunity induced by recent or past infection.
Yu, Y., Esposito, D., Kang, Z., Lu, J., Remaley, A. T., de Giorgi, V., Chen, L. N., West, K., & Cao, L. (2022). mRNA vaccine-induced antibodies more effective than natural immunity in neutralizing SARS-CoV-2 and its high affinity variants. Scientific Reports, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-06629-2