Waves Of Social Distancing May Have To Continue Until 2022, New Model Suggests

Three men are sitting on bench in public square observing social distance during the Covid-19 pandemic: Valletta, Malta - March 31, 2020. Kira_Yan/Shutterstock

Buckle up, we could be in for a long ride. Waves of social distancing measures may have to be in place until 2022 unless we promptly develop a vaccine or treatment for Covid-19, according to a new study by Harvard scientists.

In research published in the journal Science, infectious disease experts from Harvard University modeled how Covid-19 might behave after the first peak of infections by studying the dynamics of other common human coronavirus infections, such as HCoV-OC43 and HCoV-HKU1.

Unless a vaccine or a viable treatment is developed, they found that multiple resurgences of the disease could be possible as late as 2024. As such, repeated waves of social distancing measures may be needed until 2022 to keep serious cases from overwhelming the healthcare system. The work also shows that the spread of Covid-19 is unlikely to be stopped by the warm summer months, although we can expect a dip in new cases. 

“We found one time social distancing measures are likely to be insufficient to maintain the incidents of SARS-CoV-2 within the limits of critical care capacity in the United States,” Dr Stephen Kissler, lead author from Havard’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, told reporters in a press call on Tuesday. 

A woman talks with a man on a balcony in the Belgian capital on 5th April 2020. Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

“So what seems could be necessary in the absence of other sorts of treatments, are intermittent social distancing periods to [limit] the number of critical cases,” Dr Kissler continued. 

The researchers were quick to point out that social distancing isn’t the only option of the table. Other inventions, such as vaccines or treatments, could also dramatically reduce the spread of the diseases and the duration of strict social distancing measures. 

However, the World Health Organization says we could be waiting at least for 12 months for a Covid-19 vaccine. Ashish Jha, study author and Professor of Global Health at Harvard, argues this could mean we “won’t be back to ‘normal’ until we have a vaccine, which I think is a good 12 to 18 months away.”

Professor Mark Woolhouse, a leading infectious disease epidemiologist from the University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the study, praised the research as “an excellent study.” However, he highlighted that the study didn’t take into account the possibility of new social measures that could be introduced to hamper the spread of the divisions, such as targeted measures aimed at different subsets within the population. 

“One weakness of the paper is that the authors do not model specific social interventions,” Professor Woolhouse said. “So it is hard to evaluate what the wider impacts of those interventions might be. In particular, they do not consider interventions targeted at subsets of the population, ‘segmenting’, nor interventions designed to protect people most vulnerable to COVID-19, ‘shielding’."

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