A future with Coronavirus: What we can expect beyond 2021

With a wide variance in project ions as to when we might see the end of the pandemic, we’ve collated recent studies that examine just how COVID might unfold in the future.

Yoav Rosenberg
September 21, 2020

Much of the commentary that can be seen in the news today about coronavirus discusses its immediate impact and what we can expect from it in the near future. While this can be very helpful and informative, a growing number of experts agree that coronavirus is here to stay and that our sentiment should change from ‘the coming months’ to ‘the coming years’.

Furthermore, research relating to COVID is mostly emerging, meaning that we are seeing a wide variance in results and opinions that project when we might see the end of the pandemic.

This is why we’ve collated some of the more reputable recent studies that examine just how COVID might unfold over the next few years.

Previous pandemics

Studying previous pandemics can be an excellent way of making informed assumptions about the current one was the topic of study at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Of the three influenza-based pandemics that have occurred since 1900, only one has been successfully curbed by a vaccination campaign, while two have since been circulating regularly alongside the seasonal flu ever since.

Furthermore, based on past pandemics, the length in which it takes to achieve herd immunity among the population can be between 18 - 24 months. This could, of course, be expedited due to a vaccination, but it’s too soon to say exactly when we will have a vaccine and how long immunity will last (more on that below).

With much talk of a ‘second wave’, it is also helpful to examine how the past pandemics behaved. Each  scenario follows suit of one of the previous pandemics:

COVID-19: The CIDRAP Viewpoint

Scenario 1: The first wave of COVID-19 in spring 2020 is followed by a series of repetitive smaller waves that occur through the summer and then consistently over a 1- to 2-year period, gradually diminishing sometime in 2021.

Scenario 2: The first wave of COVID-19 in spring 2020 is followed by a larger wave in the fall or winter of 2020 and one or more smaller subsequent waves in 2021. 

Scenario 3: The first wave of COVID-19 in spring 2020 is followed by a “slow burn” of ongoing transmission and case occurrence, but without a clear wave pattern. 

Whichever pattern COVID-19 takes after, it is clear that it will keep circulating among the population for some time.

Virus immunity - How it affects the different scenarios

Working from ‘worst’ to ‘best’ case, let’s say the vaccine grants us immunity that lasts <40 weeks. In that case, in a study recently published in the Science Journal, researchers forecast that there may be annual outbreaks of the virus over the course of the next 5 or so years. 

The situation is similar if the vaccine grants us immunity for <2 years, the only difference being that outbreaks might occur biannually instead. Either way, the coronavirus will enter into regular circulation among the population.

How about if the vaccine grants permanent immunity? In this best-case scenario, COVID-19 would disappear shortly after implementing a comprehensive vaccination program. It would become one of these viruses that you hear about once every few years and might resurface again in about 5 years time in sporadic cases across the globe.

So how long will immunity last?

There is rampant speculation and misinformation traveling around the web these days regarding treatments and vaccinations for COVID-19. Just take a look at two articles which were suggested to me side by side earlier this month:

When reading an article that claims to define how long immunity will last, it is important to understand the extent of the study that the article is based on.  For instance, two recent studies looking at the extent of virus immunity were each published in mainstream media, but each have vastly different data sets and parameters. The first study examined 1,470 coronavirus patients, looking for immunity 21 days after recovery, while the second study examined 37 patients 4 weeks, and then 8 weeks, after recovery. It’s clear why different results might be achieved through these two different studies but many articles citing them laid a bare claim without discussing the specific experiment.

You may now ask again, “so how long will immunity last?” 

With all the attention on COVID at the moment, we are confident that the answer to that question will soon be more clear. At the moment though, we believe that your motto should be to ‘hope for the best but prepare for the worst’. Don’t let hopes of an imminent vaccine curb your attitude towards safety measures that play a major role in reducing the spread of the virus.

The role of social distancing in mitigating infection

We save above how only a portion of the pandemics were solved through vaccination campaigns. The same study noted how important social behavior was in curbing the spread of the same pandemics.

With COVID, for instance, many people predicted that following easing of quarantine measures across the globe, infections would increase much more than they have.

One study, published by Imperial College of London, which examines mobility data taken from Iphone and Android users claims that adherence to social distancing guidelines has played a pivotal role in the lower-than-expected infection rate in many countries. The study found a consistent correlation between reduction in mobility and reduction in transmission intensity and was even able to identify mobility thresholds specific to each country which would be needed to further decrease.

That stands to reason that a ‘new lifestyle’ will have to be enacted throughout the entire lifecycle of the coronavirus, however long that may be.

What will the future hold?

From the recent studies discussing the future of COVID-19, what’s most evident is that we’re venturing into the unknown and rather than disappearing in the near future, the world will have to live with the virus for the next few years. That’s not to say that life won’t get more ‘normal’ than now, but as the graphs above show, it will most likely be a ‘rollercoaster’ of the enhancing and easing of restrictions for some time yet.

As the world continues to develop vaccines (of which you can find a regularly updated list here) and treatments, it’s also of the utmost importance that we internalize the fact that social distancing measures aren’t a passing fad. They can, and do, have an incredibly important role in our future with COVID-19.

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