It will likely take four or five years for the coronavirus to be truly under control, according to the World Health Organization’s chief scientist.
The WHO’s Soumya Swaminathan offered her dire forecast Wednesday, warning of the many variables at play that will determine how long the virus will scourge the earth.
“Let’s say we have a vaccine and we’re able to cover the world’s entire population, which may take, I don’t know, three years, four years,” she said during a Financial Times panel discussion. “So I would say in a four- to five-year timeframe we could be looking at controlling this.”
Swaminathan added that a vaccine “seems for now the best way out,” but couched her assessment adding there is “no crystal ball” and the pandemic could even “potentially get worse.”
And if the virus mutates, it could render an established vaccine ineffective, she said.
Another panelist cast doubt as to whether COVID-19 would ever actually be eradicated.
“Only smallpox has been eliminated and eradicated as a human disease,” said panelist Peter Piot, a professor of global health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“We will have to find a way as societies to live with this,” Piot added, suggested that society will have to eventually shift from broad lockdowns to more specific, “targeted” approaches to quelling outbreaks.
As the United States grapples with its state-by-state lockdowns, Swaminathan said the “biggest challenge” at the moment is weighing health risks against economic reopenings.
The number of cases and the capacity of health care systems must be considered as economies reopen and special attention must be paid to high-risk areas like nursing homes and places of large gatherings, like sporting events and churches, Swaminathan said.
“Risks and benefits will have to be carefully assessed and the needs balanced,” she said, “and the trade-offs thoughtfully considered.”
Swaminathan dismissed hope in developing COVID-19 “herd immunity,” where populations naturally build a resistance to disease through exposure, saying it would mean accepting a “high rate of deaths.”
Around the world, studies have shown rates of natural immunity between 10 and 15 percent — far from the 90 to 95 percent of the population what would need to develop immunity to achieve herd immunity, Swaminathan said.
“People getting infected now are going to develop antibodies and hopefully be immune for some time. We don’t know how long that will last,” she added. “That’s still up for study.”