Researchers Predict COVID-19 May One Day Become as Mild as Common Cold

Illustration of crowd of people wearing face masks.

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Key Takeaways

  • Scientists have developed a model that predicts COVID-19 may become endemic and become as mild as the common cold within the next decade.
  • It's still not completely understood when COVID-19 will officially reach an endemic stage.
  • Experts predict with vaccinations, individuals may be able to resume "normal life" by the end of the summer.

While COVID-19 cases continue to rise and fall in all areas of the U.S., a new study is shedding a positive light on what lies ahead for the coronavirus pandemic.

Researchers at Emory and Penn State University say SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may become just as mild as the common cold. Their theory is that COVID-19 will become endemic, meaning it will be a pathogen that circulates at low levels in the general population like many mild cold-causing coronaviruses.

The report, published in the journal Science on January 12, used data from six coronaviruses to develop a model to predict the future of SARS-CoV-2. The six included severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), and four other common cold coronaviruses.

The research works on the assumption that immunity to SARS-CoV-2 will act very similarly to other endemic coronaviruses—and that COVID-19 vaccines will produce the same protection as natural infection.

The model shows that because we get our first colds as babies and young children and don’t typically have life-threatening symptoms at this age, we develop early immunity to that type of infection. When that immunity eventually wears off and we get reinfected later in life, our “immune memory” activates, and we don’t become as ill the second time around. Some experts say the new infection acts like a booster shot to further reduce symptoms and keep us immune to the infection for a longer period of time.

“This model assumes that vaccinated adults will gain the same advantage—that future infections acquired from young kids will have very mild symptoms because of immune memory from the initial vaccine, and the adults will get their 'booster shots' that way,” Bettie M. Steinberg, PhD, a virologist and provost at The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research on Long Island, tells Verywell. “If it works that way, we won't need to keep vaccinating most adults, maybe just those with immune deficiencies.”

What This Means For You

If most adults get vaccinated, COVID-19 could potentially be on the path to becoming less deadly in as little as a few years. While this is not a guarantee, the data is encouraging. Experts say you will still need to continue to follow safety precautions like wearing a mask—even after vaccination— until at least the end of the year.

When Will the Endemic Phase Begin?

When COVID-19 may reach the endemic phase is still not completely understood, the study authors say.

“Our models suggest it will take somewhere between a year and ten years (with or without vaccination),” Jennie Lavine PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, who led the study, tells Verywell.

Lavine explains that this timeline will depend on a few different factors. One is how quickly the virus spreads. “The quicker it spreads, the quicker we get to the mild state, but the more lives lost on the way,” she says.

Other factors include how fast we can vaccinate everyone and how many doses or infections will be required to generate strong immunity. She also says “long-lasting, disease-blocking immunity with shorter transmission-blocking immunity would be the best for reaching the endemic state and maintaining natural boosting.”

The Model Can Change

While this new endemic-proving model does provide some much-needed hope for the future, it has received some mixed reviews from the medical community.

“I do think this is likely, but we must remember that this is a model based on what we know right now and that both our knowledge and the virus itself can change with time,” Steinberg says.

The sooner we can reduce the spread of COVID-19 (with vaccines and precautions like social distancing and mask-wearing), the less likely the virus will mutate and possibly reduce the accuracy of the model, Steinberg adds.

Shiv Pillai, MD, PhD, director of Harvard’s Master of Medical Sciences in Immunology program, tells Verywell that although he believes the model’s scenario is likely decades from now, he has his doubts that COVID-19 will become as mild as the common cold.

Pillai says that even though transmission of the virus will go down as more people get vaccinated and develop immunity, someone, somewhere will still ultimately get infected with a severe case of COVID-19.

“If a person wasn’t immunized, wasn’t protected, does not have antibodies, they could still have severe disease," Pillai says. "I don’t think it suggests to me that the immunity will be associated with a loss of intrinsic virulence."

Looking To the Future of COVID-19

Over 2.1 million people in the U.S. have received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccinations, the dosage amount that offers 95% and 94% protection, respectively. While the vaccine rollout has been slower than expected, President Joe Biden and his administration still believe the U.S. is on track to reach “100 million shots in 100 days” following his inauguration.

If most adults get vaccinated by the end of the summer, and COVID-19 doesn't develop a mutant that causes more severe disease in children and teens, cases will go down to “almost nothing” and life will once again be normal again, Steinberg predicts.

“However, we must prevent as many infections as we can while we do the vaccinations, both to save lives now and reduce the risk of more dangerous mutants, and essentially all adults will need to be vaccinated,” she says. “I am hopeful that within five years COVID-19 as a separate disease will disappear, and adults will be back to having a couple of colds a year with one of them occasionally caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Pillai shares a similar forecast, saying by the end of the year, those who are vaccinated should be able to return to work or school and be active—while continuing to wear a mask in public. However, the immunologist still argues that the virus will uphold deadly consequences.

"In the long term, will this disease go away? Not for a while, " Pillai says. "We will still have the virulent disease around, but as you vaccinate more and more people, the chances of it happening get less frequent."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page. 

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lavine J, Bjornstad O, Anita R. Immunological characteristics govern the transition of COVID-19 to endemicity. Science. 12 Jan 2021. doi:10.1126/science.abe6522

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 data tracker.

By Lindsay Carlton
Lindsay Carlton is an experienced health and medical journalist. She served as Fox News’ health producer for seven years.