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COVID vaccine, vaccine trials, vaccine, herd immunity
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How long will COVID-19 be around after we develop a vaccine?

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

A recent article in the Atlantic posits that coronavirus may be with us for a very long time, even with a vaccine. What exactly does this mean and how long should we actually expect it to be around? Mercer Island MD Dr. Gordon Cohen joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss.

“If we look globally, almost 20 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus. In the United States alone, we’ve had almost five million people now tested positive, and we’ve already had over 160,000 people who have died. This virus is here. It’s widespread. It’s all over the world and we’re racing to find a cure. And really, it’s very likely that this particular virus — COVID-19 — will never fully go away, with or without a vaccine,” he said.

Certainly, that’s not an encouraging sentiment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be on permanent shutdown or that things will always look exactly the way they do right now.

“When I say that now, people are going to think to themselves, ‘does that mean we’re on permanent shutdown for the rest of eternity, or wear masks for the rest of eternity?’ No, that probably isn’t the case,” Cohen said.

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“There’s a general notion that for herd immunity to develop — which means that the number usually held out is 70% of the population that has been exposed to it — that you develop antibodies to it, and then it makes it very difficult for the virus to spread from person to person,” he added. “But as we’ve talked about, this particular virus isn’t very good at developing antibodies. We’ve also talked about how the antibodies that are developed tend to disappear within a month or two.”

Part of the issue is COVID-19 is unlike any virus that we’ve seen before, and we are still finding ways to mitigate its spread as we learn from it.

“If we just use the numbers in the United States, the mortality from this virus among those people have tested positive is still about 3.5%, so it’s really way higher than anything we’ve ever really seen before in this country. If our immunity only lasts a few months like we’re sort of starting to hear about, then there could be the big pandemic that we have right now that could be followed by smaller outbreaks every year,” he said.

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“Now, if we develop a vaccine or if our immunity actually lasts longer than just a few months, then it could be that we only see outbreaks every couple of years, and it’s going to be a long time before we know, because frankly, the virus hasn’t been infecting humans long enough for us to even know.”

Despite its deadliness, will we have by next year enough therapies and perhaps the vaccine that does not make it necessary to close down?

“Obviously, that’s the hope. There is certainly promising research being done in the area of vaccinations, and we’ve never seen any sort of effort like this ever in the history of the world. There’s never been a time when there’s over 150 different projects all trying to cure one simple virus,” he said.

“We have the combination of this very contagious virus that doesn’t elicit that strong antibody response, and we have a lot of people who, in the end, won’t take the vaccine. It’s going to be super hard to eradicate the virus altogether. And so I think we’re going to need a drug therapy, that’s going to also play a critical role,” Cohen added. “So I sort of think we are stuck with it. And the best we can hope for is that there’s some control of it, so that it doesn’t require these strict shutdowns and all this social distancing. And I really hope — and I think everybody hopes — that this is not our new normal, where we can’t really gather anymore and we’re wearing masks all the time.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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