WHO emergencies expert Dr. Mike Ryan said in an online briefing on Wednesday that the virus that causes COVID-19 may never disappear.
"I think it's important to put this on the table: This virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away," Ryan said in response to a question about how long the virus may keep infecting people. "HIV has not gone away, but we've come to terms with the virus, and we have found the therapies and we've found the prevention methods, and people don't feel as scared as they did before.
"I'm not comparing the two diseases, but I think it is important that we are realistic, and I don’t think anyone can predict when or if this disease will disappear."
A "massive moonshot" of developing a vaccine rapidly is the only solution Ryan said he saw to eradicating the coronavirus.
"We do have one great hope. If we do find a highly effective vaccine that we can distribute to everyone who needs it in the world, we may have a shot at eliminating this virus,'' he said.
As states across America struggle with how to reopen businesses and public spaces, Ryan said his biggest fear was a "vicious cycle" of public health emergency followed by economic disaster.
"As we've seen in some countries, even a small recurrence of disease can cause the need for a serious response in terms of a public health response,'' he said. "There is some magical thinking going on that lockdowns worked perfectly and that unlocking lockdowns will go great. Both are fraught with dangers."
Living with the specter of coronavirus long term is a possibility without an effective vaccine with wide distribution.
"I think there are no promises in this and there are no dates,'' he said. "This disease may settle into a long-term problem, it may not be. In some senses we have control over that future, but it's going to take a massive effort to do it."