This is the way the pandemic ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.*
The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV2, is sweeping the globe like wildfire killing hundreds of thousands in its wake. But its months are numbered. In a year or so, it will become part of the suite of viruses that regularly infect us –it will become endemic.
It will be demoted to a common coronavirus, one of the seven known human coronaviruses. Four are part of the regular group that cause one-third of common colds.
But this virus will be remembered as being distinct from its older brother, SARS-CoV which caused the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003. This new coronavirus is sneaky.
The older coronavirus was conspicuously clumsy. Infected people became infectious after they became sick. They were flagged with the disease before they passed it on. Infected people with serious problems breathing and a fever showed up at hospitals where the disease was largely contained. Epidemiologist Benjamin Cowling of the University of Hong Kong says:
“Most patients with SARS were not that contagious until maybe a week after symptoms appeared (Scientific American, June, 2020).”
When sick people are not contagious, they can be quarantined before spreading the disease. Containment of SARS worked so well that only 8,098 cases were reported globally with 774 deaths, mostly in Toronto and Hong Kong.
SARS-CoV’s evil younger brother, this one that causes COVID-19, uses stealth. Infected people spread the disease before they show symptoms. You can be asymptomatic and feeling fine, all the while shedding the deadly virus. No warning signal until after the damage is done.
Hospitals are particularly vulnerable. When I went to the emergency section of the Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops to get stitched up, I was intercepted at the entrance and asked if I had any of the COVID-19 symptoms. I didn’t but I could have been infected and spreading the virus. They took a chance on treating me, for which I’m thankful.
Political leaders can play a part, or not. Trump twiddles as the pandemic wildfires rage across the land of the free. Beachgoers merrily flock together in Florida and California. As protesters defend their constitutional rights to carry guns and not to wear masks, the novel coronavirus revels in the merriment.
While SARS-CoV-2 enjoys its killer notoriety now, soon it will be just another garden-variety nuisance.
The most famous example of a virus’s fall from infamy is the Spanish flu pandemic caused by the H1N1 virus from 1918 to 1919. In over two years and three waves of assault, the pandemic infected 500 million and killed nearly 100 million.
Health officials didn’t have the control measures we have today, simple measures like school closures and physical isolation. It ended only when enough people survived the pandemic with immunity.
Governments have demonstrated their worth during the pandemic, or not. Canada is doing a good job but our neighbours to the south, not so much.
Sarah Cobey, epidemiologist at the University of Chicago, says: “The question of how the pandemic plays out is at least 50 percent social and political.”
The other 50 percent comes from science in the development of a vaccine. Only then will CoV-2 be completely vanquished.
Until, vigilance is the adage. CoV-2 will sneak up on you when you least expect it.
* My apologies to T. S. Eliot, author of the poem “The Hollow Men” (1925).