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COVID-19 alarm sounded: ‘Virus may never go away’

Posted: Monday, February 15, 2021. 8:33 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: The Associated Press is tackling a question asked in many ways at different times during the pandemic: What if COVID-19 never goes away?

The answer: maybe it does, maybe it looks different. We have to wait and see.

Having claimed 2 million lives and more worldwide, is it possible to eliminate it entirely via a global vaccination campaign? Will its dangerous new variants evade the vaccines? Or will it re-invent itself into a less invasive annoyance, another common cold?

One school of thought believes the latter, but no one knows for sure, and experts believe that continued spread will make it more likely that a future variant will be more capable of eluding current tests, treatment and vaccines.

For now, scientists agree on the immediate priority: Vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible. The next step is less certain and depends largely on the strength of the immunity offered by vaccines and natural infections and how long it lasts. If humans must learn to live with COVID-19, the nature of that coexistence depends not just on how long immunity lasts, but also how the virus evolves. Will it mutate significantly each year, requiring annual shots, like the flu? Or will it pop up every few years?

The Associated Press spoke to a variety of experts, including one who published a paper in Science magazine suggesting that after maximum exposure through vaccination or direct infection, the pathogen SARS-Cov-2 will continue to circulate in a milder form, as symptoms on reinfection from other coronaviruses tend to be milder than the first instance. The prediction in the Science paper is based on an analysis of how other coronaviruses have behaved over time and assumes that SAR-CoV-2 continues to evolve, but not quickly or radically.

The last major pandemic – H1N1 influenza in 1918 – infected a third of the world’s population and killed many, without a readily available vaccine. But after infected people either died or developed immunity, it stopped spreading quickly and later mutated into a less virulent form that continues to circulate.

There is still much we don’t know, including whether the inequity in the availability of vaccines will result in more unnecessary death (rich countries bought about ¾ of the 12 billion shots so far available in 2021). There were worries about each vaccine’s effectiveness against the new strains but not enough to change minds about vaccination, but will booster doses be enough or will countries have to re-vaccinate from scratch?

The effects of the disease on children and on recovered persons with debilitating symptoms must also be examined. As one expert concluded, “We haven’t had a lot of diseases that have affected people on a scale like this.”


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