Will the danger mount each time, or will it fade away?
Two and a half years and billions of estimated infections into this pandemic, SARS-CoV-2’s visit has clearly turned into a permanent stay. Experts knew from early on that, for almost everyone, infection with this coronavirus would be inevitable. As James Hamblin memorably put it back in February 2020, “You’re Likely to Get the Coronavirus.” By this point, in fact, most Americans have. But now, as wave after wave continues to pummel the globe, a grimmer reality is playing out. You’re not just likely to get the coronavirus. You’re likely to get it again and again and again.
“I personally know several individuals who have had COVID in almost every wave,” says Salim Abdool Karim, a clinical infectious-diseases epidemiologist and the director of the Center for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa, which has experienced five meticulously tracked surges, and where just one-third of the population is vaccinated. Experts doubt that clip of reinfection—several times a year—will continue over the long term, given the continued ratcheting up of immunity and potential slowdown of variant emergence. But a more sluggish rate would still lead to lots of comeback cases. Aubree Gordon, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, told me that her best guess for the future has the virus infiltrating each of us, on average, every three years or so. “Barring some intervention that really changes the landscape,” she said, “we will all get SARS-CoV-2 multiple times in our life.”