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Is the end of the coronavirus pandemic in sight?

March 1, 2021

Many people fear mutations and a third wave, but COVID-19 infection rates are falling worldwide. Is the virus losing steam or are health measures finally having an effect?

Coronavirus protective mask
After a year of mask wearing and social distancing could the coronavirus pandemic really be coming to an end?Image: Imago Images/AAP/J. Ross

Now that spring is in the air in the Northern Hemisphere, many people are losing patience. They want perspective on when the lockdown will gradually be eased, when they can finally expect to be vaccinated, when the dust will finally settle.

The debate was fueled by alleged WHO statements concerning an imminent end to the coronavirus pandemic. Supposedly, World Health Organization (WHO) Director for Europe Hans Henri Kluge told Danish radio that the pandemic would be "over in a few months."

'I never said that'

After a heated back-and-forth among experts and on social media networks, Kluge told Germany's ZDF broadcaster: "I never said that." Rather, he said that no one could predict when the pandemic would be over.

"I would say — as a working hypothesis — the pandemic will be behind us by the beginning of 2022," the WHO director said. The coronavirus will still exist, but disruptive measures will no longer be needed, Kluge told ZDF.

German virologists warn of easing restrictions

WHO Director Kluge's alleged quote has scientists shaking their heads. On Twitter, Christian Drosten, a virologist at Berlin's Charite hospital, rejected all speculation that the virus was losing steam. "There are currently no signs of weakening in any known mutant. That would be pure speculation," Drosten said.

In his regular podcast with German broadcaster NDR at the beginning of January, the virologist said it will take a very long time before the virus becomes endemic, which means it is still there but only occurs on a local level. Drosten even told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that the situation could become far worse in 2021 before it gets better.

Karl Lauterbach, a German epidemiologist and Bundestag lawmaker, also cautions against rapidly easing restrictions. And Bavarian Premier Markus Söder told state broadcaster BR radio that people should not succumb to a kind of "opening frenzy" now.

WHO: Partial turnaround

In late February, the number of confirmed SARS CoV-2 infections worldwide was about 114 million. About 2.5 million infected people have died, and more than 64.4 million have recovered.

In absolute terms, the numbers are frightening as the virus continues to rage in some countries. There is also concern about a third wave accelerated by mutations.

But surprisingly, there are signs of the pandemic waning a bit globally. The WHO reports that global infections have been declining significantly for almost two months, much more quickly and more intensely than predicted. Mid-January still saw 700,000 new infections every day, today that figure has dropped to slightly more than half that number and deaths from COVID-19 have also almost halved in the past month.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the declining numbers a "sign of hope," saying, "This trend is a reminder that even though we are discussing vaccines today, COVID-19 can be suppressed and controlled with proven public health measures. And indeed, that is exactly what many countries have done," he said at the WHO Vaccines and Global Health Symposium in late February.

COVID-19: The second wave

Why are infections down?

Numerous reasons have been listed for the significant decline in global infection rates. They are also being used as an argument for moving forward.

Clearly, vaccinations cannot be the only reason, because only a small percentage of the global population has been vaccinated. It is just as clear that distancing and hygiene rules are effective in many countries. Both arguments would suggest a very slow path to relaxing strict contact restrictions.

In the US and Brazil, for instance, so many people have already been infected that the basic immunization of the population is making headway. If you add the registered cases to the presumed number of unreported cases in the US, it looks like a kind of herd immunity is gradually emerging.

It may sound strange but some researchers argue that the virus may very well weaken noticeably in the medium-term as a result of the mutations.

In mid-February, a research team from the universities of Atlanta and Pennsylvania published a sensational study in the medical journal Science. In it, they predict that mutations will soon push the coronavirus from pandemic to endemic — a process the global vaccination campaign is also bound to accelerate.

Flu pandemics disappeared, too

Patients being treated for Spanish flu in the US
Pandemics wreak untold havoc but then they subside, as the Spanish flu did after killing between 50 an 100 million peopleImage: picture-alliance/National Museum of Health and Medicine

Past experience with influenza has clearly shown that the incidence of infection is very likely to subside all of a sudden at some point, says Klaus Stöhr, the epidemiologist who headed the WHO's Global Influenza Program and was the WHO's SARS research coordinator. Two recently devastating influenza pandemics — the 1957 Asian flu, which killed up to 4 million people and the 1968 Hong Kong flu, which killed up to 3 million — both disappeared as quickly as they appeared, he argued.

In the case of Spanish flu after World War I, the second wave caused the most deaths, with a total of presumably more than 50 million people killed between 1918 and 1920. The third wave quickly subsided, but the pathogen remained. In a weakened form, the H1N1 virus (swine flu) appears in completely normal influenza to this day.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus might take a similar course in the medium-term, perhaps only appearing locally. If weakened by mutations, it will become less threatening. However, until the positive global trend stabilizes, the difficult balancing act between imperative contact restrictions and possible relaxations will continue.

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This article has been translated from German