Will COVID-19 become nothing more than a seasonal nuisance?

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — It’s hard to imagine a virus as serious and deadly as COVID-19 ever being akin to much more innocuous ailments like the common cold or a case of the sniffles. However, that’s exactly what researchers from the University of Utah are predicting with a new study utilizing predictive mathematical models. Scientists predict that within the next decade COVID-19 will turn into nothing more than largely a seasonal annoyance.

According to the work, the coronavirus may not change so much but our immune responses will. As the collective human species becomes more accustomed to fighting COVID-19, the virus will lose much of its potency.

“This shows a possible future that has not yet been fully addressed,” says Fred Adler, PhD, a professor of mathematics and biological sciences, in a university release. “Over the next decade, the severity of COVID-19 may decrease as populations collectively develop immunity.”

The general public hardly gave much thought to “coronaviruses” prior to 2020, but numerous coronavirus variations have been moving through populations and causing little damage for decades. So, it isn’t unreasonable to theorize that COVID-19 may reach the same point at some time.

‘Just another season coronavirus’?

To test that theory, the team at UT put together a series of mathematical models using data pertaining to the human body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2. More specifically, they looked at the following factors:

  • In all likelihood there is a “dose response” between COVID-19 exposure and symptom severity, meaning exposure to a small dose of virus will likely experience a mild case of COVID-19 and only shed small amounts of the virus. Masking and social distancing also play a role in reducing these viral doses.
  • Children rarely experience life-threatening or serious COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Adults who had COVID-19 or have been vaccinated are protected against severe disease.

Researchers ran numerous simulations and those three “mechanisms” always resulted in “an increasing proportion of the population will become predisposed for mild disease over the long term.” In fact, study authors say that one day SARS-CoV-2 won’t go by COVID-19. Instead, it will simply be “Just Another Seasonal Coronavirus” (JASC).

“In the beginning of the pandemic, no one had seen the virus before,” Adler explains. “Our immune system was not prepared.”

As more and more adults are either infected and recover, or get vaccinated, eventually the only humans being exposed to the virus will be children, and it’s already been established that they’re much less prone to serious symptoms.

“The novel approach here is to recognize the competition taking place between mild and severe COVID-19 infections and ask which type will get to persist in the long run,” Beams says. “We’ve shown that mild infections will win, as long as they train our immune systems to fight against severe infections.”

Mutations may upend the coronavirus calculations

These predictions are in no way certain. For example, if COVID-19 continues to mutate and new more dangerous variants emerge, entirely new calculations will be necessary.

“Our next step is comparing our model predictions with the most current disease data to assess which way the pandemic is going as it is happening,” Adler concludes. “Do things look like they’re heading in a bad or good direction? Is the proportion of mild cases increasing? Knowing that might affect decisions we make as a society.”

The study appears in the journal Viruses. 

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