It’s a question we’ve all asked ourselves: will the coronavirus ever really go away? Or will it remain a regular annual concern, just like the flu?
Experts are still trying to find an answer.
The Most Likely Scenario
To date, more than 19 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus globally, and at least 722,000 have lost their lives to the virus. At this point, it is so widespread and transmissible that containing the virus is now unlikely.
Instead, experts say, the pandemic will most likely eventually end when enough people have been infected and vaccinated. The virus won’t disappear, they say, but will instead continue to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will rise and fall over time, just as they do now with the flu.
Even with an effective vaccine, experts don’t predict that COVID-19 will be fully eradicated. This is easy to guess based on existing science. Vaccines are regularly given- beginning at birth- to protect us from more than 12 different viruses. Yet only one virus, the smallpox, has been completely eradicated, and it wasn’t a simple task. It took 15 years of intense global collaboration to finally stop smallpox in its tracks.
The other viruses, ranging from polio to the measles, still exist. In fact, outbreaks of the measles have recently occurred when a few unvaccinated children spread the disease to others. Based on that context, most infectious disease experts believe that COVID-19 will remain a part of our reality for at least the remainder of our lifetime.
What About Masks and Social Distancing?
According to Vineet Menachery, a coronavirus expert at the University of Texas medical Branch, “I’d be surprised if we’re still wearing masks and 6-feet social distancing in two or three years.”
Menachery believes that a combination of widespread infection and recovery, plus an accessible vaccine, will establish herd immunity and make the coronavirus “similar to how you could get the common cold every few years.”
We may find ourselves getting a coronavirus vaccine shot every year, or every other year, much like the standard flu shot. It all depends on the lifespan of protective COVID-19 antibodies, which are still being investigated by researchers.
“The faster protection goes away, the more difficult for any project to try to move toward eradication,” explained Yonatan Grad, an infectious-disease researcher at Harvard.
Grad and his colleagues have modeled a few possible coronavirus trajectories. They believe that if immunity lasts only a few months, the current massive pandemic may be followed by smaller annual outbreaks. If immunity lasts closer to two years, COVID-19 will probably peak every other year.
The bottom line? We still don’t know exactly what we’re up against, but it’s highly unlikely that the coronavirus will simply fade away and be forgotten. We can expect to deal with and respond to COVID-19, however that may look, for a long time to come.