By LAURA UNGAR, AP Science Writer
Is the coronavirus on its way out?
You might think so. New, updated booster shots are being rolled out to better protect against the variants circulating now. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has dropped COVID-19 quarantine and distancing recommendations. And more people have thrown off their masks and returned to pre-pandemic activities.
But scientists say no. They predict the scourge that’s already lasted longer than the 1918 flu pandemic will linger far into the future.
One reason it’s lasted this long? It’s gotten better and better at getting around immunity from vaccination and past infection. Scientists point to emerging research that suggests the latest omicron variant gaining ground in the U.S. – BA.4.6, which was responsible for around 8% of new U.S. infections last week – appears to be even better at evading the immune system than the dominant BA.5.
Scientists worry the virus may well keep evolving in worrisome ways.
HOW LONG WILL IT BE AROUND?
White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said COVID-19 will likely be with us for the rest of our lives. Experts expect COVID-19 will someday become endemic, meaning it occurs regularly in certain areas according to established patterns. But they don’t think that will be very soon.
Still, living with COVID “should not necessarily be a scary or bad concept,” since people are getting better at fighting it, Jha said during a recent question-and-answer session with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “Obviously if we take our foot off the gas – if we stop updating our vaccines, we stop getting new treatments – then we could slip backwards.”
Experts say COVID will keep causing serious illness in some people. In the most pessimistic scenario – a new variant and late boosters – they projected 1.3 million hospitalizations and 181,000 deaths during that period. In the most optimistic scenario – no new variant and early boosters – they projected a little more than half the number of hospitalizations and 111,000 deaths.
Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute, said the world is likely to keep seeing repetitive surges until “we do the things we have to do,” such as developing next generation vaccines and rolling them out equitably.
HOW WILL THE VIRUS MUTATE?
Scientists expect more genetic changes that affect parts of the spike protein studding the surface of the virus, letting it attach to human cells.
“Every time we think we’ve seen the peak transmission, peak immune escape properties, the virus exceeds that by another significant notch,” Topol said.
But the virus probably won’t keep getting more transmissible forever.
“I think there is a limit,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
CAN PEOPLE INFLUENCE THE FUTURE OF THE VIRUS?
Yes, experts said. One way is to get vaccinated and boosted.
“We have a virus out there that’s still circulating, still killing hundreds of Americans every day,” Jha said in a press briefing Tuesday. But, he added: “We now have all of the capability to prevent, I believe, essentially all of those deaths. If people stay up to date on their vaccines, if people get treated if they have a breakthrough infection, we can make deaths from this virus vanishingly rare.”
Not only does vaccination protect against severe disease and death, it raises the level of immunity globally.
People can also keep protecting themselves by taking other precautions like, for example, wearing masks indoors when COVID rates are high.
Longtime nurse Catherine Mirabile said it’s important not to dismiss the dangers of the coronavirus – which sickened her twice, nearly killed her husband and left them both with long COVID. Daily deaths still average around 450 in the U.S.
“People really need to look at this and still take this seriously, ”said the 62-year-old from Princeton, West Virginia, who is now on disability. “They could end up in the same shape we’re in.”