askST: If Singapore treats Covid-19 as endemic, can we view it like the common flu?

SINGAPORE – Singapore has been living with Covid-19 for close to two years now, and has said it plans to treat the disease as endemic. Can it then be thought of in the same way as the common flu?

The Straits Times speaks to Professor Leo Yee Sin, executive director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), to find out the answers to this and other questions.

Q: If we treat Covid-19 as endemic, can it be thought of in the same way as the common flu?

A: No, it cannot. The knowledge of influenza – for instance, that flu viruses constantly change, so yearly vaccinations are recommended – has been built up over decades of scientific research.

In contrast, Covid-19 is still a relative newcomer.

“Whether Covid-19 will also become a seasonal human coronavirus, we don’t know,” said Prof Leo. “It will possibly take a long time for us to observe the evolutions, to understand how this virus finally settles down in the human environment.”

Right now, Covid-19 still needs to be studied step by step, she added.

“We do not know what other surprises are going to come in the future. And since we do not know, and this is a formidable virus, we don’t let down our guard.”

Q: If I am fully vaccinated and interact only with other vaccinated people in everyday life, does it really matter if I get Covid-19?

A: Yes, it does. This is because no one truly lives in a bubble.

While we may not come into direct contact with vulnerable individuals, we may encounter them on public transport, Prof Leo said. In addition, those we interact with may have vulnerable household members.

It is therefore important for everyone to continue exercising social responsibility, especially since the highly contagious Delta variant can cause an exponential increase in the number of cases. While most affected people are likely to be low-risk cases in that situation, Singapore will also see a proportionate increase in the number of higher-risk cases, Prof Leo noted.

“Once you hit a certain number, there’s a lot of pressure in terms of medical care and things like that,” she added.

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Q: Can we all expect to get Covid-19 at some point in our lives?

A: We will all be exposed to the virus at some point, perhaps unknowingly, Prof Leo said. But that does not necessarily mean we will be infected.

“I believe that some of that exposure will not translate into infection, because I protected myself – by vaccines, or safe management measures, masks, hand hygiene and environmental cleanliness.”

But at this point in time, there is not enough data to show how many people who have been exposed to the virus will get infected, she added.

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