Smithsonian: How and when will the COVID-19 pandemic end?

By Katherine J. Wu 27 March 2020

Faced with stopping a pandemic scientists have yet to fully understand, researchers simply can’t guarantee what lies ahead—or when life will return to a version of normalcy.

Immunity is key. When enough of the global population becomes immune, SARS-CoV-2 will lose its infectious toehold, failing to find enough new, susceptible individuals to infect before leaving its current hosts.

Two possible paths to immunity exist, neither of which is guaranteed. In one, individuals who recover from COVID-19 produce the immune molecules required to fight off the virus, should it try to infect them again. In the other, people become immune by getting vaccinated, teaching their bodies to recognize and destroy the invader without getting sick. Both resolutions hinge on whether an exposure to SARS-CoV-2, or at least, pieces of it, can protect a person from future infection, which has yet to be shown definitively in the long term.

The first step to achieving this slowdown is social distancing: drastically reducing contact with individuals.

Though many COVID-19 vaccines are now in development, this process takes many months—often years. In the meantime, officials worldwide are scrambling to reduce the rate at which new infections arise to avoid overwhelming an already strained healthcare system.

Until a vaccine becomes available, the world may be in limbo with distance policies tightening and relaxing when COVID-19 flares up or subsides, according to Gideon Lichfield at MIT Technology Review. “We need to be prepared to do multiple periods of social distancing,” Stephen Kissler, an infectious disease researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health, tells Ed Yong at the Atlantic.

Another crucial component is an expedient ramp-up in diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2 infections.

Without knowing the world’s actual burden of disease—the number of people infected, including those with mild or no symptoms—researchers can’t get a good handle on how the pandemic is evolving, or what populations are most at risk.

More tests could also identify individuals who may have recovered from COVID-19, and—if they’re immune—those people could return to work, or help care for vulnerable populations. Critically, making and perfecting these tools now will equip us for any future outbreaks.

The road to ending this pandemic is an obviously difficult one that relies, in large part, on the collective resilience of hundreds of millions. Strict distancing will not—and cannot—be sustained forever, and recovering from these measures will require careful attention to both physical and mental health.

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