A modeling study on the new coronavirus warns that intermittent periods of social distancing may need to persist into 2022 in the United States to keep the surge of people severely sickened by Covid-19 from overwhelming the health care system.
The research, published Tuesday in the journal Science, looked at a range of scenarios for how the SARS-CoV-2 virus will spread over the next five years. Those scenarios included variables like whether people who are infected develop short-term immunity — less than a year — or longer-term protection. But, overall, the research concludes it is unlikely that life will return any time soon to the way it was before the virus’ emergence.
The researchers, from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, acknowledge the economic fallout from the response to the virus has been profound.
“Our goal in modeling such policies is not to endorse them but to identify likely trajectories of the epidemic under alternative approaches,” they wrote. “We do not take a position on the advisability of these scenarios given the economic burden that sustained distancing may impose, but we note the potentially catastrophic burden on the healthcare system that is predicted if distancing is poorly effective and-or not sustained for long enough.”
The authors suggest a number of factors will play a major role in how the disease’s trajectory plays out over the coming years — if transmission subsides in summer and resurges in winter, if there is some immunity induced by infection and how long it lasts, and whether people get any cross-protective immunity from having been infected with related human coronaviruses that cause common colds.
Answers to these questions are urgently needed, the authors suggested, and long-term serology studies designed to map out human immune responses to the virus over time must be conducted.
The researchers suggest it is unlikely SARS-CoV-2 will be eliminated, as was the related virus that caused the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. Options their models envisage are cyclical upswings of cases, either in an annual, biennial or sporadic fashion.
There have been nearly 2 million cases of Covid-19 worldwide, with more than 120,000 deaths.
This article will be updated.