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Experts weigh in on whether COVID-19 is here to stay

COVID-19 is far from beaten. Vaccines may not be the ultimate panacea to haul us out of the pandemic crisis. In the future, will outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, arrive in waves every winter? Might COVID-19 never go away?

Experts at the University of California, Riverside, weigh in.

 
Katherine A. Borkovich, professor and chair, Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology:

Whether COVID-19 is here to stay depends on the emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus variants around the world. Variants that escape detection by the antibodies induced by the current vaccines will present ongoing threats to human health. It is important that we have robust surveillance methods in place in order to detect these variants. My personal opinion is that we should be planning for booster shots for at least the next few years.

“My personal opinion is that we should be planning for booster shots for at least the next few years.”  Borkovich

Brandon J. Brown, associate professor and epidemiologist, School of Medicine:

I do believe different aspects of our lives which have been changed due to COVID-19 will be forever changed. The change is permanent for those who lost loved ones, jobs, health, and their livelihoods. We have the prevention tools to end the pandemic, but until everyone is able to access and use these tools, variants will continue to plague us, and it takes all of us to end the pandemic. If we use the tools available to us, we will be better protected against the virus that causes COVID-19 and future pandemics which we must prepare for.

 
Richard M. Carpiano, professor, School of Public Policy and Department of Sociology:

This will not be the last pandemic our nation faces and it would be unacceptable — morally and practically — to not try to learn from history, no matter how ugly this chapter has been for us. The legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic is most certainly here to stay — as a very dark chapter in our nation’s history. This is not simply due to the extent of sickness and deaths caused by the coronavirus, but because of how our nation responded to the challenges it threw at us. To be sure, we have much to be proud of in terms of how we tapped into our nation's deep well of scientific and public health expertise to quickly learn about a new disease and develop multiple safe, efficacious vaccines in such a short time span. Yet, the pandemic showcased so many disappointing elements of our nation for which we have been reckoning with for months and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead. These include: 

  • the vulnerabilities the U.S. faced from underinvesting in its federal and state public health systems
  • the extent of disinformation in the age of the internet and social media (including our culture of distrusting or ignoring experts as well as promoting pseudoscience)
  • a seemingly undermined sense of community responsibility (versus individualism and self-interest)
  • the unnecessary and dangerous politicizing of numerous science-based efforts aimed to give us the best chances to mount pandemic responses

In addition, the pandemic spotlighted that many historically disadvantaged persons and communities face disproportionately higher disease and death burdens for COVID, as they do with so many other health threats. Despite these harsh realities, I remain hopeful that, after we begin to get this pandemic under control, there will be nonpartisan federal and state panels set up to review and evaluate our national response and provide actionable recommendations that we will pursue in earnest to ensure we don't repeat the same mistakes next time.

“This will not be the last pandemic our nation faces and it would be unacceptable — morally and practically — to not try to learn from history, no matter how ugly this chapter has been for us.”  Carpiano

Karine G. Le Roch, director, Center for Infectious Disease and Vector Control:

Over the past year, it has been quite challenging to predict with certainty what will happen to the current pandemic. However, it has become clear that SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay for at least a few more years. While it is likely that the disease will persist, I would not worry yet. Over time, we may end up with a situation similar to the flu or the common cold. It is indeed now quite clear that the virus can mutate and escape some of the immunity generated by prior infections and/or vaccines. Scientists and health care workers will have to remain extremely vigilant, monitor virus evolution and most likely update their vaccine designs on a regular basis. There are still many scientific questions that remained unanswered. One of the most important one will be to find out how long it will take to lose immunity after infection or vaccination. Ultimately, we want to maintain a situation in which the disease is less severe for life to return to normal.

 
Dr. David Lo, distinguished professor of biomedical sciences, School of Medicine:

Often this is about the properties of the virus or vaccine, and we do have incredible scientists on the job. The real question is whether human behavior will be up to the task, and recent history has already provided the answer. We eradicated smallpox, and nearly eliminated polio from the planet, with coordinated community-level effort. But now we’ve abandoned the battlefield; people cannot even agree on the value of science and verifiable facts. We’ve had at least three worldwide pandemics in my lifetime, but none of those lessons were applied toward preparation for the next one. So, is COVID-19 here to stay? The answer is yes, and another one is coming.

“The real question is whether human behavior will be up to the task, and recent history has already provided the answer ... So, is COVID-19 here to stay? The answer is yes, and another one is coming.” — Lo

Juliet Morrison, assistant professor, Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology:

I predict SARS-CoV-2 will continue to be an issue in the coming years because of the rise of viral variants and the delays in global vaccination. It is important to note that viruses can only replicate inside a host cell, and that they acquire mutations during replication. Even though SARS-CoV-2 has a lower mutation rate than other RNA viruses like influenza virus, the sheer number of people who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 has given the virus the opportunity to accumulate an array of mutations. Currently, the approved vaccines offer protection against the new variants, but not as effectively as the original strains. As newer variants emerge, some may be better at escaping vaccine protection, thereby potentially allowing the virus to replicate in vaccinated persons. The other issue that will drive the spread of COVID-19 is that vaccination rates are currently low. There are developing countries that will not have access to the vaccines for quite a while, so the virus will continue to spread and mutate in these unvaccinated populations. Until there is herd immunity across the globe, the virus will be just a plane ride away. That is why it is imperative we vaccinate as many people as we can as soon as possible.

“Until there is herd immunity across the globe, the virus will be just a plane ride away.” Morrison

Dr. Brigham C. Willis, professor of pediatrics, School of Medicine:

I think it is too early to say. There is obviously a clear source of hope that maybe it won’t be around to stay, with the very effective vaccines we have now. But with the proliferation of more resistant variants, my guess is that we will be updating and changing the vaccine and will need yearly boosters, like flu shots, for the foreseeable future.