For much of the past year, life in Western Australia has been coronavirus-free. Friends gathered in pubs; people kissed and hugged their relatives; children went to school without temperature checks or wearing masks. The state maintained this enviable position only by placing heavy restrictions on travel and imposing lockdowns — some regions entered a snap lockdown at the beginning of the year after a security guard at a hotel where visitors were quarantined tested positive for the virus. But the experience in Western Australia has provided a glimpse into a life free from the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. If other regions, aided by vaccines, aimed for a similar zero-COVID strategy, then could the world hope to rid itself of the virus?
It’s a beautiful dream but most scientists think it’s improbable. In January, Nature asked more than 100 immunologists, infectious-disease researchers and virologists working on the coronavirus whether it could be eradicated. Almost 90% of respondents think that the coronavirus will become endemic — meaning that it will continue to circulate in pockets of the global population for years to come.
“Eradicating this virus right now from the world is a lot like trying to plan the construction of a stepping-stone pathway to the Moon. It’s unrealistic,” says Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
But failure to eradicate the virus does not mean that death, illness or social isolation will continue on the scales seen so far. The future will depend heavily on the type of immunity people acquire through infection or vaccination and how the virus evolves. Influenza and the four human coronaviruses that cause common colds are also endemic: but a combination of annual vaccines and acquired immunity means that societies tolerate the seasonal deaths and illnesses they bring without requiring lockdowns, masks and social distancing. [Continue reading…]