We need to plan for a world where COVID never goes away

From his unique vantage point, Dr. Mokdad can literally map how our desire to prematurely claim victory, rather than accept the virus’s continuance, has led us to throw off restrictions, with deadly effect. He just revised his projected body count for the United States upward, to at least 828,000 total pandemic deaths by Feb. 1, 2022. Masks, which so many Americans abandoned when it seemed the end of the pandemic was in sight, could still make a difference: If 95 percent of Americans wore a mask, his model projects roughly 56,000 fewer deaths by Feb. 1.

In the more distant future, Dr. Mokdad does not see “independence from a deadly virus,” to quote our president. “We would expect that the transmission will never go to zero,” Dr. Mokdad told me. “The virus is going to be with us for a long time” — meaning that deaths, and efforts to prevent them, could continue for years…

Embracing the Covid-forever possibility is our best path forward, said Dr. Farrar of Wellcome. That mind-set is not only a crucial hedge against complacency, in which we settle for the good-enough defenses we have now. It could drive us to capitalize on the extraordinary scientific progress of the past year. In years to come, perhaps we could have the ultimate moonshot coronavirus vaccine, one that blocks transmission of all coronaviruses (a massive challenge because of their genetic differences).

The vaccine could be a single dose stored at a modest temperature, be “cheap as chips,” said Dr. Farrar, and be available to everyone in the world. We could have unlimited oxygen and protective gear in every hospital. With the right investment, says Dr. Farrar, we could even roll out a whole new time frame: release a genomic sequence on Day 1 of identifying it, develop a responsive vaccine within seven days and begin shots in arms within a month.

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