What does the future of Covid-19 look like? That’s the question on the minds of many scientists, as well as ordinary people, as the world gets vaccinated. Will the vaccines end this plague or do we have to get used to living with this SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus?
This is the question discussed by Nicky Phillips in a recent issue of Nature, which polled a group of scientists. In January, they asked over 100 immunologists, infectious disease researchers, and virologists working on the coronavirus if it could be eradicated. Unfortunately, 89% of those scientists in the poll believe this coronavirus will very likely or likely become an endemic virus. “Endemic” means the disease will continue to circulate in pockets of the global population for years to come; like the flu.
“Eradicating this virus right now from the world is a lot like trying to plan the construction of a stepping-stone pathway to the Moon. It’s unrealistic,” says Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
This is no reason to panic, however. We live today with other coronaviruses; the influenza virus and four other coronaviruses that make up the common cold. We live with those through annual vaccinations and acquired immunity without the need for lockdowns, masks, and social distancing. It is true, however, that these measures in 2020 drastically reduced the number of cases of influenza usually seen.
Many of these same scientists had a more optimistic view. More than one-third believed it was possible the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be eliminated in some regions of the world while it continued to circulate in others. In zero-COVID regions there would be a continual risk of disease outbreaks, but they could be quenched quickly by herd immunity if most people had been vaccinated. “I guess COVID will be eliminated from some countries, but with a continuing (and maybe seasonal) risk of reintroduction from places where vaccine coverage and public-health measures have not been good enough,” says Christopher Dye, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, UK.
“The virus becoming endemic is likely, but the pattern that it will take is hard to predict,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist from Georgetown University, who is based in Seattle, Washington. This will determine the societal costs of SARS-CoV-2 for 5, 10 or even 50 years in the future. There is much we still have to learn about this new coronavirus.
(More on the future of the Covid-19 coronavirus in future posts.)