Updated: Apr 16, 2020
MORE FOR COVID-19
Could the new coronavirus really kill 50 million people worldwide?
The deluge of information on the new coronavirus is hard to keep up with, and not all sources are reliable and accurate. The Wall Street Journal recently called the data overload we’re experiencing the “coronavirus infodemic,” and warned us to be wary of consuming false and misleading information. When seeking answers to questions like, “why does social distancing work?,” “what is herd immunity?” and “when will this all be over?,” you want to call on scientists and researchers who are experts in their field.
Here, we address these and other key questions about the novel coronavirus with the editors and writers of Science News, an independent scientific, medical and technology magazine that has been published by the non-profit Society for Science & the Public for nearly 100 years.
Why are experts so worried about this novel coronavirus?
Experts are worried because there are still a lot of unknowns, including exactly how deadly the virus is. SARS-CoV-2 is a new coronavirus that hadn’t infected people before the outbreak in China, so no one has immunity to it. That means everyone is susceptible to getting infected and transmitting the virus to others, so it can spread rapidly and widely.
The virus spreads easily, and without social distancing to slow the rate of infection, health care systems will be overwhelmed. That has happened in China and Italy, and is starting to happen in New York City, where COVID-19 patients are competing for hospital space with other sick people. Scientists and public health officials also worry about people in high-risk groups — including older adults or people with underlying health conditions — who appear more likely to develop severe disease.
Does social distancing really work?
Limiting physical contact among people with “social distancing” measures, including school and business closures and a ban on nonessential travel, is the most powerful weapon we now have to slow the pandemic. The goal is to slow the spread of the outbreak, with a lower number of active cases at the peak than if no preventive measures were taken. That’s called “flattening the curve” of the outbreak. To save the most lives, everyone needs to take part.
Social distancing will need to last up to 3 months, maybe longer. The Trump administration on March 29 called for significant social distancing through the end of April. Health officials predict that social distancing measures will need to last at least one to three months in the United States to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.
When will this be over?
It’s a challenging question for experts to answer, and right now, no one knows. On March 11, the World Health Organization announced that it is now calling the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, given its spread and rapidly growing impact.
It’s possible that the virus could begin circulating permanently in humans, like influenza or common colds. It’s unknown at this point if the virus might become seasonal like the flu.
For now, the situation is likely to get worse before it improves. Most experts say we’re past the point of containing the virus, like we did with SARS and MERS. That means that COVID-19 is here to stay, and the pandemic will end only with herd immunity. Herd immunity describes what proportion of a population has to be immune to a disease for the population as a whole to be protected from outbreaks.
While this number can change based on our behavior, researchers estimate that the herd immunity threshold for COVID-19 is about one-third to two-thirds of any given population. Worldwide, that means anywhere from 2.5 billion to 5 billion people.