Welcome to the new abnormal: A study by researchers at the University of Minnesota says that if past global disease outbreaks are any guide, then the current COVID-19 pandemic could continue for two more years before it is finally brought to heel.
“The virus caught the global community off guard, and its future course is still highly unpredictable; there is no crystal ball to tell us what the future holds and what the ‘end game’ for controlling this pandemic will be,” the authors of the study noted.
Estimates by various experts as to when the United States will really be able to safely ease social distancing and begin a true return to normal life fall into a range from as a little as five months’ time to the full two-years-away cited in the new study by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP).
The wild card in all the guesswork about timing is the question of when a safe and effective vaccine, or some other type of preventative drug, will arrive on the scene — if ever.
Even if a breakthrough pharmaceutical gets even an experimental approval for use in humans, it won’t be the vaccine’s initial delivery date that will bring the worldwide outbreak to a halt. Rather, it will be the point at which the total number of vaccinations actually being administered to the public reaches between 60 and 70 percent of the population. That is the proportion that leading epidemiologists consider the threshold for “herd immunity.”
Any New Vaccine Will Take Months to Distribute
A global race to develop a vaccine is already underway, with at least eight potential vaccine candidates now being tested in humans, according to the World Health Organization.
The most optimistic projection for when one of the vaccines could commence distribution is September, and that particular vaccine is being developed in England and doesn’t have a U.S. manufacturing partner yet.
When any new vaccine is finally approved the first batches will almost certainly be given to health care providers, first responders and other essential workers. Then the process will move on to the vulnerable elderly and other groups with pre-existing conditions that make them especially susceptible to potentially fatal complications if they catch the virus. Only after that checklist is complete will public health authorities start releasing vaccines to the general public, which means that under even under the rosiest scenarios the vast majority of people are not likely to get vaccinated until sometime in 2021 at the earliest.
That’s the scenario that most public health officials have in mind when they discuss the “12 to 18 month timeframe” for the arrival of a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine but, as the new study points out, there are other viruses (including the centuries-old strains of coronavirus which cause the “common cold”) for which medical science has yet to develop any successful vaccines despite having already spent decades trying.
The current world record for developing a vaccine is four years – in 1967 for mumps.
Even Without a Vaccine, Some Researchers Believe the Virus Will Burn Itself Out Within Two Years
Currently there seems to be confidence within the scientific community that a vaccine for the new coronavirus can be found within the next year or so; however, if all that optimism turns out to be misplaced, then the authors of the University of Minnesota study still think the virus will probably burn itself out in two years’ time on its own.
“Key points from observing the epidemiology of past influenza pandemics may provide insight into the COVID-19 pandemic,” the CIDRAP researchers wrote as they suggested the length of this pandemic “will likely be 18 to 24 months, as herd immunity gradually develops in the human population.”