When, and How, Does the Coronavirus Pandemic End?
With confirmed cases of Covid-19 globally exceeding 1 million and more countries going into lockdown to slow the pandemic, the emerging question is: “When will this all end?” The answer depends in large part on uncertainties about the novel coronavirus that causes the disease, including whether you can get it more than once and how quickly the world’s scientists might produce a vaccine. The cost and benefits of a prolonged shutdown and what different countries can afford, from both an economic and political standpoint, are factors, too.
1. So how does this end?
There’s a consensus that the pandemic will only end with the establishment of so-called herd immunity. That occurs when enough people in a community are protected from a pathogen that it can’t take hold and dies out. There are two paths to that outcome. One is immunization. Researchers would have to develop a vaccine that proves safe and effective against the coronavirus, and health authorities would have to get it to a sufficient number of people. The second path to herd immunity is grimmer: It can also come about after a large portion of a community has been infected with a pathogen and develops resistance to it that way.
2. How do we manage until then?
For many countries, the strategy is to lock down movement to dramatically slow the spread, closing businesses and schools, banning gatherings and keeping people at home. The idea is to prevent a huge burst of infections that overwhelms the medical system, causing excessive deaths as care is rationed. “Flattening the curve” staggers cases over a longer period of time and buys authorities and health-care providers time to mobilize — to build capacity for testing, for tracking down contacts of those who are infected, and for treating the sick, by expanding hospital facilities, including ventilators and intensive-care units.
3. When can restrictions loosen?
The public shouldn’t expect life to return to normal quickly. Lifting restrictions too early risks inviting a new spike. Authorities in China began to re-open the city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began, two months after it was sealed off from the world, when transmission had virtually halted. But China’s measures were stricter than anywhere else so far, and at least one county has gone back to a lockdown. England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, said lockdown measures there need to last two, three or, ideally, up to six months. Annelies Wilder-Smith, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, recommends restrictions stay in place until daily cases drop consistently over at least two weeks.
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