[EXPERT REACTION] How will COVID-19 end?

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash

As the epicentre of the outbreak, China starts to heal from the pandemic, this provides a glimmer of hope that there too, will be an end to COVID-19 in Malaysia. We asked experts: 

“When and how will COVID-19 end?”


Dr Tee Kok Keng, Head of the Pathogen Genetics & Evolution Laboratory in University of Malaya (UM), said:

“As the pandemic is continually evolving, there is no conclusive formula to estimate when COVID-19 will end. Based on our experience with the SARS epidemic back in 2003, the outbreak was put under control within six months. One possible explanation is that the SARS-CoV-1, which caused the 2003 outbreak, is probably “less contagious” than the SARS-CoV-2 in COVID-19. However, the magnitude and speed in which SARS-CoV-2 is spreading has been closely linked to air travel, resulting in massive “seeding” of the virus in many countries during the initial phase of the epidemic (around January-March 2020). 

Such events have caught many countries unprepared, leading to the importation of the virus into these countries causing sporadic or cluster-based transmission. Upon rapid diagnosis of positive cases followed by extensive contact tracing, human-to-human transmission of the virus can be slowed down or even stopped, through case isolation and quarantine. Because the disease is usually mild and self-limiting, no further spread of the virus will occur upon recovery of the patients. However, with the increasing cases or clusters identified over time, some without epidemiological link, a community spread of SARS-CoV-2 is thought to have occurred. 

At this juncture, more drastic action such as the Movement Control Order (MCO) currently implemented by the Malaysian government (18 March – 14 April 2020) may help in slowing the virus transmission and reducing the impact of the outbreak on the healthcare system. Such “social distancing” intervention must be carried out in the framework of aggressive identification of positive cases and contact tracing in order to break the transmission chain within the country. If successful, the strategy may effectively reduce the number of new infections to zero, suggesting of further spread of COVID-19 in the community. How will COVID-19 end? Through vaccination.”

Dr Tan Cheng Siang, Virologist & Head of Centre for Tropical and Emerging Diseases, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University Malaysia Sarawak, said: 

“COVID-19 may never end. The effect may lessen when nearly the whole world population has been infected, survived and developed immunity. SARS-CoV-2 like any other RNA viruses will undergo genetic drift, a phenomenon whereby the genome mutates naturally allowing it to evade the antibodies targeted by the earlier strains of SARS-CoV-2. SARS-CoV-2 will then become seasonal, initially causing small epidemics of respiratory illness like the seasonal influenza virus. SARS-CoV-2 may also potentially become a children virus in a few years’ time, infecting the future generations which have never encountered this virus before. I foresee that babies aged 0-6 months may be spared from infection due to the maternal antibodies that have been passed down to them. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has never been a severe disease in children.”

Bionotes of experts

Dr Tan Cheng Siang is the Head of Centre for Tropical and Emerging Diseases, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University Malaysia Sarawak. A trained virologist, he has more than 20 years experience in handling infectious viruses, virus isolation and identification, phylogeny, molecular epidemiology, recombinant protein expression and diagnostic tool development. He is also a certified biosafety officer and holds four Certified Professional credentials from the International Federation of Biosafety Associations (IFBA). 

Dr Tee Kok Keng is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine and the head of the Pathogen Genetics & Evolution Laboratory in University of Malaya (UM). He is an adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Healthcare and Medical Sciences, Sunway University. His research interest focuses on the genetic and evolutionary characterization of blood-borne and respiratory viruses (including human coronaviruses). He has published over 90 peer-reviewed articles (h-index 22). He is currently the Editor for various international journals including PLoS One, Frontiers in Microbiology, and Virology Journal. He is the recipient of the 2017 UM Outstanding Young Researcher.

Disclaimer: Science Media Centre Malaysia has collected these comments to provide journalists with a range of expert perspectives on the subject. The views expressed here are personal opinions of the experts. They do not in any way reflect the views of the Science Media Centre or any other organization unless specifically stated. 

**All previous posts about COVID-19 here: https://sciencemediacentremalaysia.com/tag/covid-19/

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