In Brief

Here's how the COVID-19 pandemic could play out over the next two years

People sit on designated areas to ensure social distancing inside a light rapid transit train in Palembang, Indonesia, on March 20, 2020, amid concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic.
People sit on designated areas to ensure social distancing inside a light rapid transit train in Palembang, Indonesia, on March 20, 2020, amid concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image credit: ABDUL QODIR/AFP via Getty Images)

Although no one yet knows what the future holds for COVID-19, most experts seem to agree that it isn't going away anytime soon. Indeed, a new report estimates that the pandemic will likely last about two years.

The report, from researchers at the University of Minnesota, draws on information from eight previous flu pandemics going back to the 1700s, and incorporates data from the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The authors note that the new coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, is not a type of influenza, but it shares some similarities with pandemic flu viruses — both are respiratory viruses to which the population has little to no previous immunity, and both can spread when people don't have symptoms. Still, the virus causing COVID-19 appears to spread more easily than the flu, and asymptomatic transmission may account for a greater proportion of COVID-19's spread, compared with the flu.

Related: How does the new coronavirus compare with the flu?

Given how easily SARS-CoV-2 spreads, about 60% to 70% of the population may need to be immune in order to achieve "herd immunity" and bring a stop to the pandemic, the authors said. This will take time, since a relatively small fraction of the U.S. population seems to have been infected so far (although infection rates vary by location), according to studies looking at antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 in blood samples.

The report then outlines three potential scenarios for how the COVID-19 pandemic could play out. 

  •  Scenario 1: In this scenario, the current wave of COVID-19 cases is followed by a series of smaller waves, or "peaks and valleys," that occur consistently over a one- to two-year period, but gradually diminish sometime in 2021. 
  •  Scenario 2: Another possibility is that the initial wave of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020 is followed by a larger wave of cases in the fall or winter, as happened with the flu pandemic of 1918. Subsequently, one or more smaller waves could occur in 2021. 
  • Scenario 3: Finally, the initial spring wave of COVID-19 could be followed by a "slow burn" of COVID-19 transmission and cases that doesn't follow a clear wave pattern, the authors said. 

During new "waves" of cases, areas may need to periodically reinstate and relax mitigation measures, such as social distancing, to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed with cases, the authors said.

Regardless of which scenario unfolds, "we must be prepared for at least another 18 to 24 months of significant COVID-19 activity, with hot spots popping up periodically in diverse geographic areas," the authors concluded.

Originally published on Live Science.  

OFFER: Save 45% on 'How It Works' 'All About Space' and 'All About History'!

OFFER: Save 45% on 'How It Works' 'All About Space' and 'All About History'!

For a limited time, you can take out a digital subscription to any of our best-selling science magazines for just $2.38 per month, or 45% off the standard price for the first three months.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.

  • Urquiola
    I have the hunch that if no restriction measures were adopted, and the remark in SciAm: 'Forcing men to wear a mask is a castration act' is always to be kept in mind, the outbreak would have hit all suscpetible, not isolated populations by next 2020 fall, but this may induce an unbearable overload on Emergency and Hospital services, thus, no choice but to implement restrictions, which will slow down contagion pace, but not eliminate it.
    The economical consequences of keeping everyone at home, let's say 'home imprisonment', forced cloister life, won't be mitigated in years, even if all activity came back to normal before summer 2020, the cease of activity in the confiment period has irreversible side effects on economy, certainly, very good for a brake in Global Warming, which could be already entering a fast feedback loop, towards desertification or wet greenhouse.
    A fey, Therese Musco, from Italy, she died in 1976, forecasted something that reminds both the 'End of World' in Lk 21, 25-27; and the 'Clathrate shotgun', as in Wikipedia.
    They felt in right a s to impose personal restrictions, it's time they cosnider restrictions to enterprises in energy wasting activities, let's say, limit AC in summer to not cooler than 22-23º C, not hotter in winther than 19-20º C, reducing taxation to energy saving products: e.g. insulation, aluminum radiators instead of iron radiators for home heating, 'thermodynamic pumps' for building conditioning and water heating, but results in this line may be difficult to achieve in the times of low oil, low energy costs from demand contraction.
    The automotive industry did a great job in improving economy, emissions, but there could still be more technology niches for savings to dig.
    A well defined and planned tactics to reduce as much as possible, as soon as possible energy wasting, overall energy use, is urgent, a categorical imperative.
    Probably, Paris and Marrakech conferences limits, 1.5 º C and 2º C may have been already surpassed year 2019 (Why were not arranged as 'teleconferences', 'webinars' to avoid gigatons CO2 emission from travelling?) Thanks. Blessigns +
  • jon.sarvis
    I've herd that immunity is the answer to the spread of this panacademic!
  • Sopaconondas
    jon.sarvis said:
    I've herd that immunity is the answer to the spread of this panacademic!
    Yeah!, but vaccines may take some time to be available, it's not know yet the grade of immunity, of protection it will induce, 'herd immunity' requires many cases. What will happen? I don't know. Blessings +
  • DanL
    Scenarios #4, #5, #6...

    Something else entirely.