Experts cautiously optimistic as COVID-19 pandemic enters third year
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into a third year,many experts are expressing cautious optimismthat Canada has passed the need for lockdowns and the widespread safety protocols that marked much of the last 24 months.
But after two years of dealing with an unpredictable virus, they also say we should be ready to adapt at any moment.
While hospitalizations and other pandemic markers appear to have dipped or stabilized throughout the country, virologist Jason Kindrachuk says the COVID-19 crisis can’t be considered over until it subsides across the globe.
“The history of COVID-19 tells us we should be preparing for the potential of another variant of concern…. Let’s at least be appreciative that we’ve been in this situation before,” says Kindrachuk, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba.
“None of us want to take a step forward and end up having to take five or 10 steps backwards because we get hit with what comes next.”
Jurisdictions began lifting public health measures over the last month, axing gathering limits, vaccine passports and mask mandates.
Ontario’s masking policy is set to end in most indoor places on March 21— two years to the day that the U.S.-Canada border closed to non-essential travel as the original SARS-CoV-2 strain spread.
Several pandemic anniversaries are at hand this week as many Canadians reflect on the events from March 2020 that changed the perception of the virus from a faraway unknown into a real threat in North America.
COVID-19’s arrival here ushered in a transformative period punctuated by stay-at-home orders and social distancing, and the virus’s far-reaching impacts in the two years since have gone well beyond the nearly 40,000 deaths nationwide — a figure some experts say is likely much higher.
The World Health Organization declared the global pandemic on March 11, 2020, the same day the NBA shut down its season after a player tested positive. Ontario and Alberta declared states of emergencies on March 17, while British Columbia and Saskatchewan followed the next day.
Since then, scientific advancements have ushered in numerous COVID-19 vaccines and therapies to limit strain on health-care systems, giving many experts the confidence to suggest future lockdowns can likely be avoided.
A new variant could dwarf progress, but experts say it would likely require significant mutations to the virus to prompt a return of the more stringent March 2020 measures.
Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist with the University of Ottawa, is buoyed by how current vaccines have offered exceptional protection against severe disease even as the virus has changed — at least up to its current form.
“This is no longer a crisis of the virus having us at its mercy,” Deonadan says. “We have the tools to live a normal life … but it’s a matter of spending the right money and having the political will to enact those tools accordingly.”
Deonandan says new variants will arise “absolutely” as transmission continues in the developing world where vaccines are scarce.
“Will those variants be troubling? We don’t know,” he adds. “But we have vaccine platforms that can produce new formulations very, very quickly.”
Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease expert with Hamilton’s McMaster University, says that while science has evolved at an “incredible” pace since 2020, the rapidity with which the Delta and Omicron waves took hold means creating variant-specific jabs in time could prove difficult.
He says other vaccine technologies are underway, however, including efforts to create a pan-coronavirus injection that could protect against the current strain and whatever comes next.