A leading epidemiologist has warned the threat of the Covid pandemic will linger for "five to 10 years" due in part to deep animal reservoirs of the coronavirus pathogen around the world.
Peter Collignon, professor of infectious diseases at the Australian National University Medical School, said because animals are susceptible to the novel coronavirus, eradication is all but impossible.
"This virus isn't going away," he said. "It's going to be with us and there will be new variants."
"I'm talking five to 10 years because there's animal reservoirs of it."
Speaking to ABC Radio on Tuesday, he said the animal kingdom will effectively provide an ongoing breeding ground for the mutating virus.
"Originally this came from animals," he explained. "If we look at a disease like measles, that actually came from cattle and then adapted for people, and was just people-to-people [transmission].
"If it is just human-to-human transmission you have some hope of getting rid of it and eradicating it. But what's apparent is that some animals are particularly susceptible to this – minks, for example."
That's why the Danish government took the controversial step in 2020 to kill some 17 million farmed minks over fears of them harbouring a new coronavirus strain.
"The trouble is whenever you have an animal reservoir – and even cats and dogs can get this to a mild degree, there's lots of animals that can get this but I don't think they're a big source of infection – but the real problem is if they're a source of underlying reservoir for the disease then it's very difficult to get rid of it through vaccination and other means, because it will come back," he said.
"That's why we just have to accept this is here, and it's not going away."
Warning over a lack of preparedness from government
Speaking on the same expert panel, David Anderson, Deputy Director of the Burnet Institute which has done Covid modelling for the Victorian government, said the estimate of the threat dragging on for five to 10 years "is correct".
"It shouldn't be this bad for that long ... but there's not going to be a 'return to normal' in time for the next election cycle [three years away], for example," he told ABC Radio.
Associate Professor Anderson said society is going to need to make more permanent adaptations going forward including major investments in better ventilation and air quality in public buildings such as schools.
"Things like indoor air quality and ventilation, people have talked about it, we've known for at least 18 months that Covid is airborne but yet there's been practically no investment in improving air quality in indoor settings."
As Omicron throws supermarket supply chains into disarray in Australia, Assoc Prof Anderson is among those warning that governments need to better prepare for changes in the shifting nature of the pandemic.
"We need to start learning from what we've already seen," he said.
That sentiment was echoed in the same interview by Nancy Baxter, the head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health.
"We've been completely unable to cope with a rapid change in the characteristics of the virus, and I'm concerned about the next variant that we will be as seemingly unprepared, despite having two years to prepare," she said.
"We haven't controlled the spread of Covid across the world so there are going to be new variants.
"There's no guarantee the next Covid variant is going to be milder," she said, adding that hopefully we will have "layered immunity" from vaccines and Omicron infection.
"I think it's going to be a real challenge to get through the next few months.
"I don't think this experience has been a success. I think it's really important that we learn from this, but I'm concerned we're not going to."
Vaccines and new drugs cause for optimism
While the Covid threat won't disappear, the therapeutic response should only improve.
Professor Collignon said we should be very optimistic about the success of the vaccines so far in preventing serious illness and dramatically reducing death rates, as well as new drugs treatments coming onto the market.
"I would think it's likely we'll have more drugs developed ... so we'll be in a much better position than last year." he said.
But there's no doubt that a 'return to normal' isn't going to look so normal any time soon.
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