People around the world may need to practice some level of social distancing on and off until 2022 to prevent new coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19) arise again and exceed the capacity of hospital systems, a group of Harvard disease researchers said Tuesday.
Lifting all measures of social distancing at once would risk delaying the peak of the epidemic and could become more severe, scientists warned in an article published Tuesday in the journal. Science.
The course of the pandemic will depend on questions that have yet to be answered: Will the spread of the virus change with the seasons? What immunity will people have after becoming infected? And does exposure to another type of coronavirus that causes mild illness provide any protection against the pathogen that Covid-19 causes?
Those questions are evaluated by government leaders who see how economies around the world stagnate due to social distancing measures. With the millions of jobless people left at home, pressure is mounting to ease restrictions in the United States and elsewhere. According to experts, in order to do this, measures to control the disease and generalized tests must be in place.
Harvard researchers used computational models to simulate how the pandemic could develop. One possibility is that strict social distancing followed by intense detection work by public health systems could stop and eradicate the virus. That’s what happened with SARS-CoV-1, which caused an outbreak in 2003. But with around 2 million confirmed cases of the new pathogen globally, that outcome is considered increasingly unlikely, the researchers wrote.
Most likely, the virus is here to stay, like influenza, and it will travel the world according to the seasons of the year. In one model, after 20 weeks of measures to limit spread, a peak of the epidemic was observed that was as large as uncontrolled spread.
“Social distancing was so effective that practically no immunity developed in the population,” the researchers said of that scenario. If the virus is more transmissible in the colder months, delaying the peak until fall could exacerbate difficulties in healthcare systems, they wrote.
To avoid such results, intermittent social distancing measures may be needed until 2022, unless hospital capacity is increased or effective vaccines or treatments are developed. The authors do not suggest a particular path to follow, but said that what they were looking for was “to identify possible trajectories of the epidemic under alternative approaches.”