Eventually—years or even decades in the future—COVID-19 could transition into a mild childhood illness, like the four endemic human coronaviruses that contribute to the common cold.
“My guess is, enough people will get it and enough people will get the vaccine to reduce person-to-person transmission,” says Paul Duprex, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research. “There will be pockets of people who won’t take [the vaccines], there will be localized outbreaks, but it will become one of the ‘regular’ coronaviruses.”
But this transition won’t happen overnight. Experts say that SARS-CoV-2’s exact post-pandemic trajectory will depend on three major factors: how long humans retain immunity to the virus, how quickly the virus evolves, and how widely older populations become immune during the pandemic itself.
To successfully guard against SARS-CoV-2 going forward, we will need a global monitoring network similar to the worldwide reference laboratories used to collect, sequence, and study variants of influenza.
“We’re going to have to live with it, we’re going to have to have constant vaccination, and we’re constantly going to have to have a very sophisticated molecular surveillance program to keep track of how the virus is evolving,” [infectious disease epidemiologist Roy] Anderson says.