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Will COVID-19 Be Around Forever?

An illustration of the globe with coronavirus particles above it.

Vithun Khamsong / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Experts say that COVID-19 will likely become endemic, meaning it will circulate forever.
  • A vaccine likely won’t provide full or permanent immunity, but it will still be a good tool for gaining control of the pandemic and potentially lessening the severity of the symptoms that it causes.
  • We will need to continue our face mask-wearing, handwashing, and social distancing efforts until the pandemic is under control.

Experts have learned a lot about SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) since the pandemic began. However, there are still many unknowns about what is to come. One question that both scientists and laypeople have is whether the novel coronavirus will become endemic, meaning that it will stick around.

Many experts say that it will, but they also say tools like vaccines will help us curb spread and may lessen disease severity. This will help us get back to normal—or at least, a new normal.

What Experts Say

“I don’t really see any path by which this virus isn’t with us forever and it just becomes an endemic virus, like cold viruses and flu viruses,” John Patton, PhD, professor of biology and Blatt Chair of Virology at Indiana University, tells Verywell. “It will just be with us, and we will have to control it and mitigate worse symptoms.” 

SARS-CoV-2 will more than likely become endemic if reinfection becomes the norm and a highly effective vaccine isn’t adapted worldwide, according to a journal article published in Science Magazine. 

Experts say it’s a waiting game as they work to learn more about how our immune system responds to COVID-19 in the long term as well as what the efficacy of a pending vaccine would be.

In the meantime, we can look at what we know about other respiratory viruses—specifically, the family of coronaviruses. We can also look at what we know so far about SARS-CoV-2 and the science of vaccines to gauge the likelihood of the novel coronavirus becoming endemic.

“It’s not going to disappear,” William Schaffner, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Verywell. “You won’t find a single public health person or infectious disease doctor saying that. This is a serious issue we’re going to have to continue to contend with. And once the vaccines are here and we’re starting to vaccinate, that doesn’t mean you can throw your mask in the trash.”

What This Means For You

COVID-19 will likely become endemic, meaning it will be a virus that’s around forever. Experts say that a COVID-19 vaccine and other tools will help us gain control over viral transmission and lessen the threat of the virus, which will help us get back to some sense of normal.

Immunity Through Infection

Experts are still learning about the possibility of reinfection with SARS-CoV-2. A man in Nevada tested positive for the virus on two occasions about seven weeks apart after testing negative twice in between, according to a journal article published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. Researchers aren’t sure whether the incident was a case of reactivated infection or reinfection. 

However, experts say that because we're dealing with a coronavirus, they already know infection likely doesn’t lead to permanent immunity. 

“It’s partly because of how those viruses infect us and how they replicate in us, but also how our immune system responds to them,” Patton says. "Unfortunately, with viruses like coronaviruses, it’s generally the case that immune response doesn’t lend itself to sterilizing protection.”

Sterilizing immunity would mean that we couldn’t ever get reinfected. We know that we can get reinfected with respiratory viruses, such as the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and the common cold year after year.

Schaffner says that SARS-CoV-2 has a lot of cousins: Before this virus jumped from an animal to a human, there were four coronaviruses known to affect humans and they typically produced common cold symptoms. These human coronaviruses gave us short-term protection after infection from getting the same virus again. 

“But after about a year, your protection began to wan and you could get a new cold from that same old virus, Schaffner says. "If that happens with this one, we’re in much thicker soup because then we cannot anticipate that 'once infected' means 'always protected.'”

Immunity Through Vaccination 

Another way to achieve potential immunity from a virus—or at least some level of protection from infection or severe symptoms—is through vaccination. However, Schaffner says that a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine won’t be like “putting on a suit of armor.” 

William Schaffner, MD

Once the vaccines are here and we’re starting to vaccinate, that doesn’t mean you can throw your mask in the trash.

— William Schaffner, MD

We likely won't be able to eradicate SARS-CoV-2 from the population through vaccines as we have with other viruses. “It would require science to be able to develop a vaccine that is as effective as the measles vaccine,” Schaffner says. “We don’t think we will have vaccines that are that good.”

For example, getting two doses of the measles vaccine is 97% effective at providing permanent immunity against measles. It was because of that effectiveness rate and the lifelong protection the vaccine offers that we eradicated measles in the United States.

“Of course, we let it back in when we don’t vaccinate children,” Schaffner adds as a caveat.

Developing a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is a much more complicated scientific challenge than producing the measles vaccine, which was relatively straightforward. For that reason, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set a low bar for the required effectiveness of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. “They said the vaccines have to be at least 50% effective,” Schaffner says. “That’s down around a bad flu vaccine year," he adds, explaining that the effectiveness of a flu shot varies year to year based on the circulating strain.

Lack of Lifelong Immunity

In addition to having an initial vaccine that might not have high efficacy, we likely won’t have a vaccine that offers lifelong protection. “This is trying to look at a crystal ball and not really knowing how things are going to turn out,” Patton says. "But most of the vaccines that are being generated look like they’re going to provide us with some sort of protection. But it's not likely that the nature of this protection is going to be a permanent, sterilizing immunity.”  

Why, then, is there hype about potential vaccines if they aren't likely to be highly effective or provide life-long immunity? The short answer is that any safe vaccine gives us a new tool to fight the pandemic with. “If we have a vaccine, that really changes everything,” Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, REHS, assistant professor of public health at the University of Las Vegas School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “It allows us to look at this differently. [COVID-19] will become a disease that we have the ability to control by using more than just social distancing steps.”

What Happens Once the Virus Is Endemic?

Even if we cannot eradicate SARS-CoV-2, that doesn’t mean the virus will remain at the same threat level it is currently. In time, we will likely be in a situation where the virus is endemic. 

Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, REHS

We're trying to make projections based on what we know about other viruses or similar situations, but the only thing that’s really going to tell us exactly what happens is time.

— Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, REHS

“We can profoundly reduce transmission so that the virus kind of smolders,” Schaffner says. “It won't cause large outbreaks anymore. And that’s what most of us think will happen if we get a safe and effective vaccine.” 

Patton adds that even if a vaccine isn’t highly effective in preventing infection, it could still lessen COVID-19 symptom severity and reduce the risk of death. Plus, vaccines aren’t the only area of research scientists are working on.

“We jumped to the solution as being vaccines," Patton says. “And that is certainly true. But what I’ve been so impressed with during the last six months is how much better we are doing in trying to get to where we have effective therapeutics and treatment methods.”

Finding a New Normal 

What does a future with a potentially endemic COVID-19 look like? Experts aren't sure, but they're working on developing a better sense of what's to come. “We're trying to make projections based on what we know about other viruses or similar situations, but the only thing that’s really going to tell us exactly what happens is time," Labus says.

In the meantime, Schaffner urges people to keep wearing masks and staying six feet apart from others. “We truly hope that vaccines help us. But vaccines should not make us careless.”

Schaffner envisions some people who are vulnerable, such as older adults and people with underlying conditions, will continue wearing masks during the winter season—even after we get a better handle on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When will we get a handle on it? “I would anticipate if we get a safe and effective vaccine at the end of this year or the beginning of next year, right about this time next year, we may have reached our ability to reduce the transmission of this virus," says Schaffner. "And my hope is that next year’s Thanksgiving can be nearly normal.” 

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  2. Tillett RL, Sevinski JR, Hartley PD, Kerwin H, Crawford N, Gorzalski A, et al. Genomic evidence for reinfection with SARS-CoV-2: A case studyLancet Infect Dis. 2020. Oct. doi:10.1016/S1473-3099(20)30764-7

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