Almost two years into the pandemic, some countries have declared their intention to start treating COVID-19 like other endemic diseases, such as seasonal flu.

Despite witnessing relatively high infection rates amid the frenetic spread of the Omicron variant, which appears to cause less severe disease but is highly transmissible according to early studies, countries including England and Ireland have drastically loosened restrictions on public life.

Denmark has announced plans to lift all restrictions next week, as its health ministry announced that COVID “will no longer be categorised as dangerous to society.”

Official messaging from political leaders in Spain, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere has stressed that societies need to learn to live with the virus.

COVID is not going away. It’s going to be with us for many, many years, perhaps forever, and we have to learn to live with it,” Sajid Javid, the UK health minister, said last week.

“I think we are leading Europe in the transition from pandemic to endemic and we’re leading the way in showing the world how you can live with COVID.”

However, officials from the World Health Organization have warned that it is too early to treat COVID-19 as an endemic disease, stressing that the evolution of the virus is uncertain and noting that on a global scale the pandemic continues to rage.

“We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges. We are certainly not at the point where we are able to call it endemic,” WHO’s senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, told a press briefing.

Meanwhile, much of the global population has not been fully vaccinated against COVID, increasing the chances of more severe disease among them. Low vaccination rates in many countries also make the emergence of a new variant more likely, which could derail attempts to treat COVID as endemic.

What does endemic mean?

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines endemic “as the constant presence and/or usual prevalence of a disease or infectious agent in a population within a geographic area”.

Dr Ebere Okereke, a senior technical adviser at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and honorary senior public health adviser to Africa CDC, said one key factor is “predictability and stability”.

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