The future of COVID has been uncertain from the beginning. Back when schools first shut down in March 2020, I believed that the shutdown would last only two weeks. Then I believed it would last only six weeks. Then I was sure, at the very least we’d be back up and running COVID-free by September.
That obviously didn’t happen. (I am an optimist at heart…and often gullible and delusional, apparently.)
Though the arrival of the vaccines should have put us on the road to certainty—and seemingly did for a while—between anti-vaxxers and variants, the numbers are climbing and the future of COVID is more uncertain than before. As has been the case since the beginning, the more we learn about COVID, the more questions we have.
The biggest question now is: what’s next? What will COVID look like in six months, one year, five years from now?
Unfortunately, we don’t know. We can’t know.
“I think anyone who gives you a definitive answer is probably full of it,” Adam Lauring, a physician and virologist at the University of Michigan Medical School, said in an interview with Vox.
Fortunately, even if a definitive answer is off the table, scientists can paint a tentative picture of what the future may hold.
More Variants On The Way
The latest variant to wreak havoc on our hospital systems is Delta. It’s more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which is more transmissible than the original virus that started spreading at the end of 2019. An internal CDC report suggested the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox—which means the average number of people each person infects is closer to 10 than 1. Some studies have found a link between Delta and more serious illness, though that hasn’t been confirmed. Either way, all told, Delta is trouble.
Unfortunately, Delta won’t be the last. “We haven’t seen the end of variants and we certainly haven’t seen the end of variants that are more transmissible,” Nathan Grubaugh, an evolutionary virologist and associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, told HuffPost.
Already, Delta-plus and Lambda are gaining steam—if not in numbers then in conversations. We don’t yet know what to expect from these variants.
Future Strains Will Look Like Delta—With Changes
Because of the global world we live in and the scale of this pandemic, scientists don’t know what to expect from variants.
The virus’s genome is around 30,000 nucleotide bases long. Compared to the 3 billion in our genetic code, that’s nothing. It’s still enough to make it impossible to test what one change would to the virus. Adding to that, mutations rarely occur one-by-one. They occur in combination with other mutations.
In an interview with HuffPost, Ben Neuman, chief virologist at Texas A&M University’s Global Health Research Complex, predicted that “the most likely bet is that future strains will look like delta, but with extra changes.”
That could mean that COVID becomes even more transmissible as it evolves, but no one really knows.
COVID Probably Cannot Get Worse Indefinitely
If increased transmissibility is on the table, the bigger question then (in my mind) is virulence—how sick will a new strain make people and can a new strain evade vaccine-induced immunity.
Again, no one really knows, but there are theories. Most of the theories suggest good news. (There’s that tendency toward optimism, again.)
In an interview with Vox, Nash Rochman, who studies computational genomics at the National Institutes of Health, explained that there probably is an upper limit to how bad COVID can get. Too contagious or too severe and “it’ll burn itself out,” says Rochman.
“Can you have a virus that is really, really infectious, and really, really deadly?” Rochman wonders. “The answer is probably not.”
Dirk Dittmer, a virologist at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine, echoed that idea. He said, “The virus just wants to infect as many people as possible and the best strategy for that is to make them as little sick as possible.”
Immunity—vaccine induced and due to prior infection—will also play a role in keeping severity from spiraling.
There’s Some Good News, Too
Among all this uncertainty, there are a few areas in which scientists are confident.
For starters, the way COVID transmits is unlikely to change. It’s a respiratory virus and will most likely stay a respiratory virus. It won’t suddenly become sexually transmitted, nor will it suddenly become uber surface-transmissible, according to experts.
Also, the rate of mutations will slow down—we won’t be hearing about a new variant every few weeks. However, that slowdown happens over years, not months, cautions Lauring. Still, it’s comforting to know that eventually a new COVID future variant won’t be dominating the news cycle every few weeks.
Vaccinations Are The Key To Bringing This Pandemic To An End
Vaccines are the key to bringing the pandemic to an end. Not only because vaccines are unbelievably good at preventing severe disease and death in the individual, but because more vaccinated folks means less spread and less chances the virus has to mutate.
“We know that most of the variants we see emerge from people who are not vaccinated,” said Dittmer.
As a result, “The key to stopping new variants is to vaccinate so thoroughly that SARS-CoV-2 is not able to find enough new hosts to sustain itself,” Neuman said.
With all of the uncertainty surrounding COVID’s future, it might feel like it’s time to panic. Panic is very rarely the answer. Instead, stay informed, get vaccinated if you aren’t, and keep in mind that as the virus evolves, so do we—in our knowledge and weapons against it.
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