What does the future hold for the coronavirus? Many scientists expect that COVID-19 will stick around indefinitely, but they also believe the virus could become far less serious.
As the novel coronavirus transitions to a mild endemic virus, it is unlikely to follow a clear path. Some researchers envision a healthier summer with lower circulation of the virus and more people vaccinated. They also envision, unfortunately, a more troublesome autumn. Unknown factors, like how long the protection provided by vaccines will last, what percentage of people become vaccinated, etc., will determine the true outcome.
The Short Term
Cases in the U.S. have plummeted from earlier this year but have more recently plateaued at concerning levels. Fortunately, vaccines are being rolled out nationwide, with vaccines now available to anyone 12 years and older.
Because of this, we may have a much better summer in store. Vaccine supplies should be more widely available in the U.S. And, with our most vulnerable populations protected, there should be fewer hospitalizations and deaths. The country will likely not reach herd immunity over the summer, but experts emphasize that if the country can decrease transmission—as well as remove some of the virus’ most severe side effects through vaccinations—the future will look brighter.
Then we enter fall. Two factors could allow the spread of COVID-19 to pick up again: more time indoors and colder weather. Even in the absence of an autumn surge, health officials will likely continue to recommend personal protective behaviors like mask-wearing, handwashing, and social distancing. This public messaging is probable because people of all ages may still be in the process of being vaccinated.
The Middle Term
Herd immunity is believed, by some, to be the logical conclusion of the pandemic. But that goal may never be achieved—at least not in the way we envision.
That doesn’t mean the U.S. will remain in crisis over the next couple years, but, even if the country reaches herd immunity through vaccinations, it’s unlikely to be sustainable. Neither a COVID-19 infection nor a vaccination is believed to provide lifelong immunity. Instead, people will become susceptible again, either because their immunity fades or new variants of the virus evolves, much like the flu or the common cold.
The severity of future outbreaks will be determined by whether vaccines can continue to prevent extreme side effects, how many people are vaccinated, how long immunity lasts, and how the virus evolves. Those factors will also inform how often people need booster shots and whether vaccines must be adapted to the changing virus.
The Long Term
The future of COVID-19 is dependent on a lot of unknowns, including whether people develop lasting immunity to the virus, whether its spread is based on season, as well as the choices made by governments, companies, and individuals. If immunity to the virus lasts less than a year, for example—similar to other coronaviruses in circulation—there could be annual surges in COVID-19 infections through 2025 and beyond. Years from now, this form of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, could join the ranks of other seasonal coronaviruses that cause common illnesses annually.
After our immune systems are primed by vaccines, boosters, and other encounters with the coronavirus, we will be ready to take on COVID-19 when we see it again.