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The coronavirus may be here ‘for the rest of our lives,’ doctor says

The NBC News medical correspondent discussed the omicron variant and why the virus may become endemic.

It's time to start grappling with the fact that COVID-19 is likely to be around for quite a while — maybe even the rest of our lives. Plus, with the current delta surge and now the omicron variant to contend with, holiday travel and family gatherings feel riskier than they did just a few weeks ago.

While experts stress that all of the same mitigation practices we've been using continue to work against omicron, many have lingering questions about COVID-19. NBC News senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres joined TODAY to address viewers' concerns.

How worried should we be about the transmissibility of the omicron variant?

The thing to keep in mind with transmissibility is what experts call doubling time, Torres explained, which refers to the amount of time it takes for COVID-19 cases to double.

Preliminary data suggest that the doubling time for the omicron variant is between two and three days. "If you look at the delta variant, back in June we thought it was around 11 days or so. Now it looks like it might be five or six days," Torres said. "So (omicron) is much more transmissible, meaning that more people are going to catch it and more people are going to spread to other people. That's the concern."

Early findings also show that cases of omicron tend to be less severe than those of the delta variant, he said. But if more people are getting sick, that means more may end up hospitalized, and eventually, more may die.

Pfizer's new antiviral pill for COVID-19 shows promise. Who will likely get the most benefit from it?

“What they found in the initial studies were that for people who are at high risk of COVID-related symptoms and complications, that it cut the risk of hospitalizations and deaths by 89% if they took it early in the treatment course, meaning they understood they had COVID, they tested positive,” Torres said. 

For those who don’t have an elevated risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms, the medication appeared to cut the risk for hospitalization and death by 70%, he said.

The medication, which has not yet received authorization or approval from the Food and Drug Administration, is a twice-daily series of antiviral pills. Merck is also developing a similar antiviral medication, which may be less effective than Pfizer's.

Will we eventually think of COVID-19 the same way we think of the seasonal flu?

"This is going to turn into what we call an endemic virus, which means the virus is always going to be here. We just need to treat it with things like the vaccine and, hopefully, prevent it, keep the complications low and then (use) these other medicines as well," Torres said. "My guess is for the rest of our lives, at least, this virus will still be here."

Does that mean we'll need a COVID-19 booster shot every year like the flu shot?

"That's the big debate in the scientific community right now: Are we going to need this every year?" Torres said. "We don't know at this point."

For the original series of the mRNA vaccines, the two doses were administered within a few weeks of each other, but the booster shot is spread out at least six months. "We think that's going to last longer than a year period. I'm hoping three, five, maybe 10 years next time we need one," he said.

But it depends on whether or not there are new emerging variants to account for as well, Torres added. "We didn't see this omicron coming and it came very quickly."

Ultimately, whether or not we'll need more boosters depends on both how long the protection from the current boosters lasts and whether or not new variants significantly evade that protection.