The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sickened more than 16.5 million people across six continents. It is raging in countries that never contained the virus. It is resurging in many of the ones that did. If there was ever a time when this coronavirus could be contained, it has probably passed. One outcome is now looking almost certain: This virus is never going away.
The coronavirus is simply too widespread and too transmissible. The most likely scenario, experts say, is that the pandemic ends at some point—because enough people have been either infected or vaccinated—but the virus continues to circulate in lower levels around the globe. Cases will wax and wane over time. Outbreaks will pop up here and there. Even when a much-anticipated vaccine arrives, it is likely to only suppress but never completely eradicate the virus. (For context, consider that vaccines exist for more than a dozen human viruses but only one, smallpox, has ever been eradicated from the planet, and that took 15 years of immense global coordination.) We will probably be living with this virus for the rest of our lives.
Back in the winter, public-health officials were more hopeful about SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. SARS, a closely related coronavirus, emerged in late 2002 and infected more than 8,000 people but was snuffed out through intense isolation, contact tracing, and quarantine. The virus was gone from humans by 2004. SARS and SARS-CoV-2 differ in a crucial way, though: The new virus spreads more easily—and in many cases asymptomatically. The strategies that succeeded with SARS are less effective when some of the people who transmit COVID-19 don’t even know they are infected. “It’s very unlikely we’re going to be able to declare the kind of victory we did over SARS,” says Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University.