Agencies | For anyone hoping to see light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel over the next three to six months, scientists have some bad news: Brace for more of what we’ve already been through.
Outbreaks will close schools and cancel classes. Vaccinated nursing home residents will face renewed fears of infection. Workers will weigh the danger of returning to the office as hospitals are overwhelmed, once again.
Almost everyone will be either infected or vaccinated before the pandemic ends, experts agree. Maybe both. An unlucky few will contract the virus more than once. The race between the waves of transmission that lead to new variants and the battle to get the globe inoculated won’t be over until the coronavirus has touched all of us.
“I see these continued surges occurring throughout the world,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and an adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden.
“Then it will drop, potentially somewhat precipitously,” he said. “And then I think we could very easily see another surge in the fall and winter” of this year, he added.
With billions of people around the world yet to be vaccinated and little chance now of eliminating the virus, we can expect more outbreaks in classrooms, on public transport and in workplaces over the coming months, as economies push ahead with the reopening. Even as immunization rates rise, there will always be people who are vulnerable to the virus: Newborn babies, people who can’t or won’t get inoculated, and those who get vaccinated but suffer breakthrough infections as their protection levels ebb.
The next few months will be rough. One key danger is if a vaccine-resistant variant develops, although it is not the only risk ahead. In the coming months, Bloomberg will explore the pandemic’s long-term impact on economies and markets, the pharmaceutical industry, travel and more.
“We’re going to see hills and valleys, at least for the next several years as we get more vaccine out. That’s going to help. But the challenge is going to be: How big will the hills and valleys be, in terms of their distance?” Osterholm said. “We don’t know. But I can just tell you, this is a coronavirus forest fire that will not stop until it finds all the human wood that it can burn.”
COVID COMPARED TO OTHER PANDEMICS
The five well-documented influenza pandemics of the past 130 years offer some blueprint for how Covid might play out, according to Lone Simonsen, an epidemiologist and professor of population health sciences at Roskilde University in Denmark. She is an expert on the ebb and flow of such events.
While the longest global flu outbreak lasted five years, they mostly consisted of two to four waves of infection over an average of two or three years, she said. Covid is already shaping up to be among the more severe pandemics, as its second year concludes with the world in the middle of a third wave — and no end in sight.
It’s possible that the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 won’t follow the path set by the pandemics of the past. After all, it is a different, novel and potentially more transmissible pathogen. And with a death toll of more than 4.6 million people so far, it’s already more than twice as deadly as any outbreak since the 1918 Spanish flu.
Despite brutal initial waves and relatively high vaccination rates, countries including the U.S., U.K., Russia and Israel are flirting with record numbers of cases. Immunization is helping to moderate incidences of severe cases and deaths, but surging infections mean the virus is reaching the young and others who remain unvaccinated, leading to rising rates of serious disease in those groups.
Nations where vaccination has been sparse — including Malaysia, Mexico, Iran and Australia — are in the midst of their biggest outbreaks yet, fueled by the contagious delta strain. With the virus still spreading out of control in vast swathes of the planet, another novel variant could quite feasibly emerge.
History shows the commonly held belief that viruses automatically get milder over time — to avoid completely wiping out their host population — is wrong, according to Simonsen. Although new mutations aren’t always more severe than their predecessors, “pandemics can in fact get more deadly during the pandemic period, as the virus is adapting to its new host,” she said.