The future of COVID-19: 4 possible scenarios (hint: it will never go away completely)

We’ll talk about Covid-19 as casually as we do about the common flu one day, according to several experts.

“I think this virus is here to stay with us and it will evolve like influenza pandemic viruses,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program,I, said during a press briefing this week. “It will evolve to become one of the other viruses that affect us.”

White House chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, echoed Dr. Ryan’s prediction during the press briefing. Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, added that we did have a chance to potentially eliminate this particular coronavirus forever, but that window is now closed.

“We had a chance in the beginning of this pandemic,” she said. “This pandemic did not need to be this bad.”

Right now, the primary objective of vaccine rollouts is to make the consequences of the novel coronavirus more manageable for the public and economy. We can see some success on this front in the low death and hospitalization rates among vaccinated populations, in addition to increased commercial activity from businesses that put regulations in place that allow them to serve consumers safely.

According to a recent study from the public health department of King County in Washington, which includes Seattle, unvaccinated people are seven times more likely to test positive for COVID-19, 49 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 32 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated people. After clinicians noted a patterned decline in immunity among patients who received a two-dose vaccine more than six months ago, Moderna and Pfizer set to work seeking approval for booster shots which should be available to the public by the fall.

Behavioral countermeasures like masking and social distancing have gone a long way to reduce COVID exponential growth curve, as well.

But booster shots, masks, and vaccine passports may become regular fixtures of American life.

The 4 possible Covid-19 scenarios

RNA viruses like the novel coronavirus mutate very quickly. The delta variant, for example, now accounts for 99% of new cases in the U.S.

The speed at which this is occurring will lead to one of four outcomes. There could be:

  1. sporadic infections, which would occur infrequently and irregularly
  2. or endemics, in which Covid-19 maintains a constant presence within specific geographic areas
  3. continued epidemics, which would see sharp increases in the disease in the population
  4. reoccurring pandemics, which are epidemics that have spread over several countries or continents — i.e., what we’re currently experiencing.

Covid will likely eventually end up popping up in sporadic infections or endemics, according to experts.

The reason Covid-19 is so tricky

The virus fueling the current Covid-19 pandemic, SARS-Cov-2,  has presented the medical community with many challenges that all but eliminate vaccines as a plausible way to eradicate it forever.

“In some cases, this immunity is only short term. The flu virus, for example, mutates every season and a new strain affects us. This means that you can still catch the flu the following year, but you’d be extremely unlikely and unlucky to catch it twice in one season,”  Dr. Sara Kaya, a British general practitioner, told Al Jazeera. “In the case of coronavirus, there have been some reports of patients testing positive for coronavirus soon after discharge, despite having apparently recovered from the initial infection.”

We also can’t ignore the polarizing nature of Covid guidance. Wearing masks and vaccination are highly contentious issues that have bred a disparate recovery effort in the U.S.

“People have said we’re going to eliminate or eradicate the virus,” Dr. Ryan said. “No, we’re not. Very, very unlikely.”