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August 6, 2020

Why the coronavirus may 'never go away'

Daily Briefing

    As new coronavirus cases continue to climb in America, health experts say it's becoming clear that the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, is here to stay—but experts say that, between emerging treatments and a possible vaccine, we won't be stuck in a perpetual global pandemic, either.

    How Covid-19 is changing the future of the health care industry

    The novel coronavirus isn't going away

    No matter what we do to curb the novel coronavirus—whether through social distancing, wearing masks, or developing a vaccine—one thing is "almost certain: This virus is never going away," The Atlantic reports.

    According to The Atlantic, the time frame during which America could have contained the virus "has probably passed." Now, the virus is just "too widespread and too transmissible" to stop.

    The Atlantic reports that public health officials were optimistic when the virus first hit that countries could eradicate the pathogen, given its similarity to the coronavirus that causes SARS—which emerged in 2002 and was "snuffed out" among humans, although not animals, by 2004. But unlike the coronavirus that causes SARS, the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, spreads more easily and can spread asymptomatically—meaning that a lot of the strategies used to curb SARS are ineffective against the novel coronavirus, The Atlantic reports.

    Ultimately, according to Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, "[i]t's very unlikely we're going to be able to declare the kind of victory we did over SARS."

    What will a future with the novel coronavirus look like?

    Health experts say it's likely that enough people will become infected with or vaccinated against the novel coronavirus to end the global pandemic, but that the virus will probably continue to infect people at lower rates.

    Ultimately, the "future" of the novel coronavirus will depend largely on the duration and strength of immunity against the virus, according to Yonatan Grad, an infectious disease researcher at Harvard University.

    According to models generated by Grad and his colleagues, if immunity against the virus lasts a few months, we could experience another SARS-CoV-2pandemic accompanied by smaller outbreaks of the virus each year. If immunity lasts two years, infection rates for the virus could peak every other year, according to Grad. Grad explained, "The faster protection goes away, the more difficult for any project to try to move toward eradication."

    The same calculations apply to a potential vaccine as well, The Atlantic reports. A vaccine that provides short-term immunity could require booster shots over time, like the flu shot. (And while there are several vaccines in development, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday cautioned that "there's no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be," adding that countries should continue contact tracing, hand washing, and social distancing to slow the novel coronavirus' spread.)

    Moreover, even if the world did manage to eliminate the virus from the human population, "it could keep circulating in animals—and spread to humans again," according to The Atlantic. So far, tigers and minks have caught the novel coronavirus from humans, The Atlantic reports, and research indicates the minks were able to pass the virus back to humans.

    But the most likely, best-case scenario, a vaccine would make the new coronavirus "a much less dangerous and less disruptive" threat, such as the flu or other seasonal respiratory viruses, The Atlantic reports. In this scenario, SARS-CoV-2 would become the fifth coronavirus—joining four other coronaviruses that cause a considerable proportion of common colds—that circulates among humans regularly and seasonally.

    "I think this virus is with us to the future," said Ruth Karron, a vaccine researcher at Johns Hopkins. "But so is influenza with us, and for the most part, flu doesn't shut down our societies. We manage it."

    In fact, research suggests—although it doesn't prove—that at least one of the four coronaviruses linked to common colds, OC43, may have started as a pandemic before "settling in as [a] routine viru[s]," The Atlantic reports. And while that research is entirely speculative, it could potentially be good news, in that it suggests SARS-CoV-2 may become less deadly as it transitions from a pandemic to a "common cold"—especially given that the other four coronaviruses may be less harmful because human bodies have built up an immune response to the pathogens over time, according to The Atlantic.

    "All of this, along with immunity from vaccines, means that [the novel coronavirus] is likely to become far less disruptive down the line," The Atlantic reports. "In this way, the long-term outlook for [the coronavirus] might offer some hope for a return to normal" (Zhang, The Atlantic, 8/4; Hellmann, The Hill, 8/3; Wamsley, NPR, 8/3).

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