After facing down the virus for several years, many people still have questions about the future of the COVID-19 pandemic. Widespread vaccination, reliable boosters, and the development of potential treatments paint a positive picture of the next few years, but there are still concerns about new variants and mutations.By looking at models from teams of respected researchers, experts have determined a few things that we can expect to see in the near future.
How Health Professionals Predict the Future
Many people wonder how researchers can predict the path of a virus that changes as often as COVID-19 does. Major medical groups formed teams of professional researchers, and each team takes different scenarios, then harnesses information from past pandemics, current COVID trends, and ongoing studies to determine potential futures.While their results are usually not perfectly accurate, these teams often agree on which outcomes are most likely.
COVID-19 Is Probably Here to Stay
As history shows, it is extremely difficult to fully eradicate any infectious disease. For conditions like measles, vaccinations keep disease spread to incredibly low levels by facilitating what is called sterilizing immunity. It is unlikely that the COVID-19 vaccines will ever be able to achieve sterilizing immunity. Factors like vaccine hesitancy, frequent mutations, and constant exposure all play a role in the vast spread of the virus.Some experts suggest that sterilizing immunity is largely a myth and that infections will continue to happen, though the symptoms will be far less severe or completely absent.
From Pandemic to Endemic
Experts feel that COVID will likely lose its pandemic status in 2022, thanks to rising vaccination rates and advances in COVID antiviral drugs.The virus will become endemic, dropping in severity and becoming a part of everyday life, similar to many strains of influenza. While COVID will still remain dangerous, it will probably not dictate our individual and societal actions. Instead, populations will simply need to take precautions during certain parts of the year when illnesses peak — most likely the colder months.
The Risks of Variants
In general, viral mutations trade lethality for infectiousness. If a virus is too deadly, it won’t be able to transmit as freely since its victims will die. On the other hand, if it can persist in a population for a notable amount of time, it can infect far more hosts.However, experts warn against viewing this trend as a guaranteed event. It is always possible for a variant to possess both high lethality and infectiousness. Protecting against these potential variants is the focus of much of the ongoing research for COVID vaccines and treatments.
Many research models predict that COVID-19 will become endemic like influenza and will therefore require an approach similar to influenza. Currently, vaccine effectiveness starts to wane after six months. This, along with the potential for vaccine-resistant variants, calls for regular boosters.Some researchers suggest that future boosters will target the variants that pose the largest threat. Because of this seasonal approach, companies like Moderna are already focusing their efforts on a combination COVID-19 booster and influenza shot.
The Trigger for Returning to “Normal”
In terms of what it would take for a return to a completely “normal” pre-pandemic life, most experts feel that the widespread availability of oral COVID-19 medications is the key.Currently, there are not enough FDA-approved medications to provide to larger communities. Some medications also have potentially severe drug interactions, limiting doctors’ abilities to prescribe them to the general population.
The Concerns for the Vulnerable
While otherwise healthy and vaccinated individuals will likely be able to return to pre-pandemic life without much danger, some populations remain at risk. These groups, such as immunocompromised and older people, will likely continue to have high levels of hospitalization.Because of this, some populations may need to continue to take additional precautions for the foreseeable future, such as wearing masks, continuing to practice excellent hygiene, and avoiding crowds.
The Risk of Long COVID
Sometimes, COVID symptoms persist for much longer than is typical. Researchers have many hypotheses about what causes these outliers, but research is still limited. Additionally, symptoms of long COVID can vary dramatically from person to person. These factors make most COVID model teams wary of predicting the future of long COVID and its management.
It is unlikely that the general populace will need to adopt new practices to protect against COVID-19. If the virus does become a seasonal illness, familiar prevention strategies like mask-wearing will remain commonplace. Businesses should expect employees to take more sick days to help limit the spread of the virus.Additionally, many health companies are focusing on lowering the cost and expanding the availability of COVID tests. With greater access to testing, populations can limit contact with others once they confirm their diagnosis.
Preparing for Future Pandemics
Experts agree that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the shortcomings and need for changes in medical systems and infrastructure. Many healthcare fields are experiencing ongoing staffing shortages, including a lack of nurses, doctors, and specialized staff. Additionally, hospitals simply were not equipped to handle the influx of COVID patients — requiring additional space, supplies, and employees.Various groups have offered unique solutions to these issues, and widespread changes will likely occur to guard against future pandemics.