Scientists have terrible news for people hoping to see the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in the next three to six months, as experts have said that we should expect more of what we are already experiencing.

According to an NDTV report, experts predict that outbreaks will force schools to close and courses to be cancelled, residents in nursing homes who have been vaccinated will have renewed concerns about infection. Workers will evaluate the risks of returning to work as hospitals are once again overburdened.

Experts agree that almost everyone will be infected or vaccinated before the pandemic ends and that a select minority will acquire the virus more than once. The race between waves of transmission that lead to new variations and the fight to vaccinate the entire world will not be ended until the coronavirus has infected everyone.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and an adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, said that he can see the continued surges in cases occurring throughout the world.

He added, “it will drop, potentially somewhat precipitously. And then I think we very easily could see another surge in the fall and winter of this year.”

With billions of people still unvaccinated throughout the world, and no hope of eradicating the COVID-19 virus, further outbreaks should be expected in classrooms, public transportation, and workplaces in the coming months when economies reopen.

Newborns, individuals who can’t or won’t be immunised, and those who are vaccinated but experience breakthrough infections when their protection levels decrease will always be exposed to the virus, even as vaccination rates climb.

The coming months will be difficult as the development of a vaccine-resistant variety is one major concern, but it is far from the only one. NDTV reported that Bloomberg will be investigating the pandemic’s long-term impact on economies and markets, the pharmaceutical sector, tourism, and more in the coming months.

“We’re going to see hills and valleys, at least for the next several years as we get more vaccine out. That’s going to help. But the challenge is going to be: How big will the hills and valleys be, in terms of their distance? We don’t know. But I can just tell you, this is a coronavirus forest fire that will not stop until it finds all the human wood that it can burn,” stated Michael Osterholm.

Also read | Amid talk of boosters, global vaccine disparity gets sharper

COVID-19 vs. other pandemics

According to Lone Simonsen, an epidemiologist and professor of community health sciences at Roskilde University in Denmark, the five well-documented influenza pandemics of the previous 130 years provide some guidance for how COVID may play out. Lone Simonsen is an expert on how such occurrences ebb and flow.

While the biggest worldwide flu outbreak lasted five years, she said, and they typically lasted two to three years and comprised of two to four waves of illness. COVID is already shaping up to be one of the most severe pandemics, with the world amid a third wave and no end in sight as its second year comes to a close.

It is possible that the SARS-CoV-2 virus will not follow in the footsteps of previous pandemics since it is a new disease that might be more easily transmitted. It is already more than twice as lethal as any outbreak since the 1918 Spanish flu, with more than 4.6 million people killed so far.

Despite harsh early waves and relatively high vaccination rates, nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Israel are trifling with new highs in case counts. Immunisation is helping to reduce the number of severe cases and fatalities, but growing infections imply that the virus is reaching the unvaccinated, resulting in higher rates of serious illness in those populations.

Malaysia, Mexico, Iran, and Australia, among other countries with low vaccination rates, are seeing their worst epidemics ever, fuelled by the infectious delta strain. With the virus still spreading uncontrollably throughout huge swaths of the globe, another new strain is a distinct possibility.

According to Simonsen, the widely held idea that viruses become milder over time to prevent entirely wiping out their host population is incorrect. 

“Pandemics can grow more lethal throughout the pandemic era, as the virus adapts to its new host,” she said, adding that new mutations aren’t always more severe than their predecessors.

Early on in the COVID outbreak, there was reason to believe that vaccinations, like childhood injections that prevent illnesses like polio, might give long-term protection.

Coronaviruses feature a “proof-reading” mechanism that corrects in-built mistakes that occur during replication, lowering the risk of variations developing when the virus is transferred from one person to another. However, because the number of instances in the world is so large, mutations are inevitable.

Kanta Subbarao, director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne said that “With the pandemic, we have this enormous force of infection. That has counterbalanced the ability of the virus to proofread.”

As a consequence, COVID might be similar to the flu, requiring regular vaccine updates to stay effective as the virus develops.

Some researchers say SARS-CoV-2 is poised to become completely resistant to the first generation of vaccines. A study from Japan, which has yet to be published or peer-reviewed, suggests that potentially dangerous mutations in the delta variant are already being picked up in a global database used to track such developments. Reports of current strains breaking through vaccinations or triggering higher fatality rates have not held up to rigorous scrutiny thus far.

“This is a scenario we hope won’t happen,” Simonsen said. “My God, we would have to do it all again.”

Other even grimmer possibilities for the coming months include the emergence of a novel influenza virus or another coronavirus making the leap from animals into humans.

“As long as there are animal reservoirs of coronavirus there is still the possibility that another zoonotic coronavirus could emerge in the future,” Subbarao said. “There is that in the background, the risk of still dealing with this one when another one emerges.”

Also read | Vaccines effective against Delta variant of coronavirus: Study

What will be the end for COVID-19?

The epidemic is not going to be finished in six months, it appears. Experts think that the present outbreak will be contained until the majority of the world population, maybe 90 per cent to 95 per cent, has some level of protection due to vaccine or past infection. The key element should be vaccination, they say.

“Without vaccination, one is like a sitting duck, because the virus will spread widely and find most everybody this autumn and winter,” said Simonsen.

According to Bloomberg’s vaccination tracker, more than 5.66 billion doses of vaccine have been delivered worldwide. However, the success of certain rollouts, such as in the European Union, North America, and China, obscures the failure of others. The majority of African countries have barely distributed enough vaccines to cover less than 5% of their people with a two-dose injection. India has barely administered enough to cover around 26% of the population.

According to Erica Charters, an associate professor of history of medicine at Oxford University and the coordinator of a study on how epidemics end, the pandemic will finish at various times in different areas, just as past outbreaks did. She believes that governments will have to determine how much of the sickness they are willing to live with.

Approaches vary. While some countries are still shooting for zero COVID cases, the world is unlikely to eradicate the virus completely.

Countries like Denmark and Singapore, which have kept instances under control, are already planning for a post-pandemic future with fewer safety regulations. Others, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, are expanding even as infection rates approach all-time highs. Meanwhile, China, Hong Kong, and New Zealand have pledged to continue working diligently to eradicate the virus on a local level. As a result, they are likely to be among the slowest to recover from the havoc caused by the pandemic’s containment.

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