Pandemic vs Endemic: What's the difference?

With SARS-CoV-2 circulating, will we make this leap?
07 December 2021


Pandemic mask



Is it possible for a virus to replicate without it being inside a cell?


Julia Ravey asked Raven Baxter, a molecular biologist and science educator from the UC Irvine in California about the difference between pandemic and endemic, and what this means for SARS-CoV-2.

Raven - Viruses need a living host to reproduce themselves because they use the machinery that are inside of cells to replicate. However, they don't just exist in humans. Viruses can infect bacteria, plants and different kinds of animals in addition to humans. In that sense, they can be outside of a body, but they can't exist really without living things to use for their own destruction.

Julia - Sean has also written in to ask about what is the line between 'alive' and 'not alive' when it comes to thinking about bacteria versus a virus?

Raven - This is a debate and I learned this early on in the pandemic because I said, 'viruses aren't living.' Then a slew of people came through and said, 'well actually...' Some people do believe that viruses are living and they feel like our definition of what's living and non-living is nuanced in a way, especially because of some things that we've learned about super viruses or mega viruses. But in my opinion, living things are able to grow and reproduce on their own and that is where I draw the line.

Julia - In the UK, there's been talk that we may be one of the first countries where the virus that causes COVID-19 might move from a 'pandemic' to an 'endemic'. What does that mean?

Raven - In my own words, an 'endemic' means that it is going to move from something that is more so a larger/urgent threat to something that kind of exists in the background of all of the other things that are already around. For example the seasonal flu. The thought is that eventually this may happen with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However it's still a very urgent situation right now because it is a new virus that we don't understand. It is evolving quickly and mutating at a rate where we can't really afford to wait for it to become endemic. We definitely want to keep as many people healthy and save as many lives as possible.


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