COVID herd immunity may be unlikely—winter surges could “become the norm”

Empty vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are seen at a first-come, first-serve drive-thru vaccination site operated by the Lake County Health Department on January 28, 2021 in Groveland, Florida. Seniors 65 and older waited in line for hours to be vaccinated.

Enlarge / Empty vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are seen at a first-come, first-serve drive-thru vaccination site operated by the Lake County Health Department on January 28, 2021 in Groveland, Florida. Seniors 65 and older waited in line for hours to be vaccinated. (credit: Getty | NurPhoto)

Some experts speculate that the pandemic coronavirus will one day cause nothing more than a common cold, mostly in children, where it will be an indistinguishable drip in the steady stream of snotty kid germs. Such is the reality for four other coronaviruses that have long stalked school yards and commonly circulate among us every cold and flu season, to little noticeable effect.

But that sanguine—if not slightly slimier—future is shaky. And the road to get there will almost certainly be rocky. For the pandemic coronavirus to turn from terror to trifle, we have to build up high levels of immunity against it. At the population level, this will be difficult—even with vaccines. And with the uncertainty of how we’ll pull it off, some experts are cautioning that we should prepare for the possibility that the pandemic coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, will stick with us for the near future, possibly becoming a seasonal surge during the winter months when we’re largely indoors.

“The prospect of persistent and seasonal COVID-19 is real,” write public health expert Christopher Murray of the University of Washington and infectious disease expert Peter Piot of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In a recent commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the two warn that if that happens, it “could require both health system change and profound cultural adjustment for the life of high-risk individuals in the winter months. There is an urgent need to prepare for such a scenario.”

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