No, COVID-19 isn’t winding down, scientists say, predicting it’ll be around the rest of our lives

Even with new boosters, experts predict the scourge that’s already lasted longer than the 1918 flu pandemic will linger far into the future. Here’s why.

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Pfizer’s updated COVID-19 vaccine in production in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Pfizer’s updated COVID-19 vaccine in production in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Pfizer via AP

The coronavirus is not on its way out, experts say, no matter how much we want it to be.

Not even with updated boosters newly available to better protect against the variants now circulating, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropping its quarantine and distancing recommendations and people throwing off their masks and acting as if we’re back to pre-pandemic times.

The scourge already has lasted longer than the 1918 influenza pandemic, but it’s going to be with us far into the future, scientists predict.

One reason is that it’s gotten better and better at getting around immunity from vaccination and past infection. And research suggests that the latest omicron variant gaining ground in the United States — BA.4.6, which was responsible for around 8% of new U.S. infections a week ago — appears to be even better at evading the immune system than the dominant BA.5.

And experts worry the virus might keep evolving in worrisome ways.

HOW LONG WILL IT BE AROUND?

Better get used to living with it because it’ll likely be around for the rest of our lives, says Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 coordinator.

Experts expect COVID ultimately will become endemic, meaning it occurs regularly in certain areas according to established patterns. But they don’t think that will happen 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. “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.”

The COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub made some pandemic projections spanning August 2022 to May 2023 that assumed the newly tweaked boosters, adding protection for the newest omicron relatives, would be available and that a booster campaign would take place this fall and winter. In the most pessimistic scenario — a new variant and late boosters — they projected 1.3 million hospitalizations and 181,000 deaths in 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.

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, says the world is likely to keep seeing repetitive surges until “we do the things we have to do,” like developing next-generation vaccines and rolling them out equitably.

Topol says the virus “just has too many ways to work around our current strategies, and it’ll just keep finding people, finding them again, and self-perpetuating.”

HOW WILL THE VIRUS MUTATE?

Scientists expect more genetic changes that affect parts of the spike protein that studs 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 says.

But the virus probably won’t keep getting more transmissible forever.

“I think there is a limit,” says Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “What we’re really dealing with, though, is there’s still a lot of people across the world who don’t have any prior immunity — either they haven’t been infected, or they haven’t had access to vaccination.”

If humanity’s baseline level of immunity rises significantly, Binnicker says, the rate of infections — and, with that, the emergence of more contagious variants — should slow.

But there is a chance the virus could mutate in a way that causes more severe illness.

“There’s not any inherent reason, biologically, that the virus has to become milder over time,” says Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist.

WILL NEXT VARIANT BE ANOTHER OMICRON VERSION?

Omicron has been around since late last year, with super-transmissible versions quickly displacing one another. Binnicker thinks “that will continue at least for the next few months.”

Down the road, he says it’s likely that a new variant, distinct from omicron, will pop up.

He says the recent wave of infections “gives the virus more chances to spread and mutate and new variants to emerge.”

CAN WE INFLUENCE THE FUTURE OF THE VIRUS?

Yes, experts say. One way: Get vaccinated, and get a booster.

According to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, as many as 100,000 COVID hospitalizations and 9,000 deaths could be prevented if Americans get the updated booster this fall at the rate they typically get an annual flu shot. About half of Americans typically get vaccinated against influenza.

People also can take other precautions, like wearing masks indoors when COVID rates are high.

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