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Spain's prime minister asks EU to debate considering COVID-19 an endemic virus like the flu and end the pandemic

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The prime minister of Spain has joined a growing chorus of European leaders calling for COVID-19 to be treated as an endemic virus like the flu, rather than a pandemic virus necessitating enormous disruptions in people's lives.

In a radio interview with Spain's Cadena SER on Monday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said it is time to re-evaluate COVID. He called on the European Union to debate the possibility of treating the virus as an endemic illness, according to CNBC.

“The situation is not what we faced a year ago,” Sanchez said, explaining that it is safe for Spanish children to return to school after the holidays.

“I think we have to evaluate the evolution of COVID to an endemic illness, from the pandemic we have faced up until now,” he added. The Spanish leader said European nations should debate a gradual reappraisal of the pandemic "at the technical level and at the level of health professionals, but also at the European level."

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made similar remarks last year, when he said the British public eventually will have to "learn to live with the virus." Although the Omicron variant has caused a "tidal wave" of new cases, according to Johnson, the U.K. government has not yet enacted new coronavirus restrictions. In fact, the U.K. has reduced the period of required isolation for individuals who test positive for COVID from seven days to five, CNBC reported.

U.K. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC on Sunday that the country was on the road "from pandemic to endemic" as disruptive coronavirus restrictions are eased.

Now that Omicron cases appear to be falling in the U.K., experts say the country could be one of the first to declare the pandemic over.

A pandemic virus is said to become endemic when viral infections are commonly found in the population, usually in seasonal intervals. Over time, as most people develop natural immunity to the disease or get vaccinated against it, the virus will affect only relatively small segments of the population, rather than hitting everyone hard at once.

While Sanchez and a handful of other European leaders argue that COVID-19 is beginning to look like an endemic disease, health experts say it is too early to consider COVID endemic. The World Health Organization forecast Tuesday that in the next six to eight weeks, more than half the people in Europe and Central Asia could be infected with the Omicron variant, which is highly contagious though appears to cause less severe disease.

“In terms of endemicity, we’re still a way off, and I know there’s a lot of discussion around that right now,” Dr. Catherine Smallwood, a senior emergency officer at the WHO Europe, said at a press conference Tuesday.

Her comments come as European nations reported record numbers of COVID infections caused by the Omicron variant. In recent days, France has reported more than 300,000 new daily cases, and Germany reported 80,430 new infections on Wednesday, a record high, according to Reuters.

“Endemicity assumes that there’s stable circulation of the virus, at predictable levels and potentially known and predictable waves of epidemic transmission,” Smallwood said.

“But what we’re seeing at the moment coming into 2022 is nowhere near that, we still have a huge amount of uncertainty, we still have a virus that’s evolving quite quickly and posing new challenges so we’re certainly not at the point of being able to call it endemic. It might become endemic in due course but pinning that down to 2022 is a bit difficult at this stage.”

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