When Will the COVID-19 Pandemic End? What to Know About Future of Public Health Crisis

The entire world is eagerly awaiting an end to the SARS-CoV-2 public health crisis—but the end of the pandemic won't necessarily mean an end to cases of COVID-19.

In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak a pandemic because of the increase in the number of countries reporting growing cases. While the word "pandemic" can stoke fears about the severity of the disease, the term is just used to describe a virus as being widespread, marking the end of a pandemic somewhat of a grey area.

A pandemic is generally accepted as an outbreak that occurs across continents. The WHO told Newsweek the current one will be declared over when the "worldwide spread of COVID-19 stops."

"​​As far as what the end of the pandemic might look like, such as if it could end up being like flu with smaller recurring outbreaks or more like the common cold where it is endemic: we don't know," the WHO said. "We don't know how SARS-CoV-2 circulation will proceed, a lot will depend on our collective actions as well as the potential tools, including vaccines, on the horizon."

Given that a pandemic relies on the global spread of a virus, it's possible it could end but there would still be additional new cases of COVID-19. In one scenario, COVID-19 could be brought under control in a localized area, but not another, making it an epidemic instead of a pandemic. If this happens, the WHO stressed a need to remain vigilant about keeping the virus under control as it's very transmissible and could have "recurrent pandemic potential."

The world lost its ability to eliminate COVID-19 "very early on," according to the WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove. Scientists and health experts have also expressed the belief that COVID-19 could become endemic, where the virus never goes away and maintains sustained transmission.

pandemic covid-19 end cases
Even after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world may see additional cases of COVID-19. Above, people pass by a sign reminding students to get a PCR test outside The New School over Labor Day Weekend on September 6, 2021, in New York City. Noam galai/Getty Images

For some, facing the possibility of COVID-19 being a regular part of life could add to their pandemic fatigue and invoke a sense of hopelessness. However, the WHO noted that a virus being endemic doesn't mean the level of death and serious illness we're seeing today will continue because with the right tools and therapies, the world can control and live with endemic diseases.

Some Americans are getting disheartened about the state of the outbreak given surges the U.S. is seeing in cases despite vaccines being widely available. The bulk of hospitalizations involve unvaccinated people, although there have been breakthrough cases where vaccinated individuals contract the virus.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently told Politico that America's success with regards to the pandemic shouldn't be measured in terms of "no cases." Instead, it should be looked at as having "very few people in the hospital and very few dying."

Despite the world likely missing its opportunity to eradicate COVID-19, Van Kerkhove stressed the need for the global community to harness its powers to drive transmission rates down. She pointed to the WHO's response plan, which calls for widespread testing and surveillance, vaccinations and the implementation of risk mitigation measures, such as requirements or limitations on public gatherings and travel.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the deadliest of the 20th century, ended when there weren't enough susceptible people for the virus to find and take hold in communities. However, that came at the cost of at least 50 million lives and the infection of about a third of the world's population, according to Time.

The COVID-19 virus has been far less deadly than the Spanish Flu and the number of infections needed to reach that level of herd immunity can be reduced because of the vaccine. Inoculations can be key to ending a pandemic, as it reduces a person's chance at contracting and spreading the virus, and the WHO has pushed for a global vaccination response, not a domestic one.

Van Kerkhove noted on Wednesday that countries with high rates of vaccinations have a "false sense" of safety and the lack of vaccinations in other places could perpetuate the pandemic by allowing the virus to spread and the rise of new variants.

A variant's potential to resist vaccines and spread to areas with high vaccination rates raises concerns among health officials about the possibility of a never-ending pandemic. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhnom Ghebreyesus has warned that no one is safe until the global population is safe and called for a dramatic increase in vaccine supplies in lower-income countries.

The WHO told Newsweek the pandemic will continue as long as there is a "worldwide spread of the disease," making global solidarity vital.