In this timeline, Hanage speculated, “We learn some things about the virus that make us much more confident about the possibility of resuming various activities. One of them could be that we already have substantial immunity, through “mild” or even asymptomatic infections.
These are the kinds of things that could be learned over the course of months of testing, both in people with symptoms and in others. Two types of tests are important here: one that detects the presence of the virus itself and one that detects the antibodies that people develop when they are immunized against it.
With this new information, Hanage said, it may be possible to isolate contagious or more vulnerable people, while a large part of the population returns to something that resembles normal life. “You can have fewer tables in a restaurant, for example, or fewer people in a bar,” he said. Meanwhile, if some places have much higher incidences of the disease than others, people in some states and cities may leave home earlier or during different times than people elsewhere in the country.
Michael Stoto, professor of health and population systems administration at Georgetown University, told me that three variables dictate the spread of an illness: “How many people does the average person meet in a day when transmission can take place “(whether by face (face to face or by touching the same surface),” the probability that the virus will be transmitted in each of these interactions “and” the proportion of people that you meet who are themselves infected. ”
If more and better targeted tests start to provide a more complete picture of the spread of the virus, Stoto said, public health officials may choose to focus on one variable more than another. For example, if the test data indicated that reducing the number of meetings (the first variable) would be very effective, restaurants and small businesses could reopen, but large crowded events would be canceled or suspended. “Some of the extreme things that we are doing now, we may be able to give up sooner rather than later,” he said.
And in three to four months, the researchers could have identified a treatment for COVID-19 – not a cure, but something that could quickly and reliably relieve symptoms and prevent death. This would not eliminate the continued need for social distancing, as large-scale outbreaks would still be possible, but it could reduce the risk of overloading hospitals across the country in the event of an outbreak.
For Hanage, this timeline is more likely than the false alarm scenario, but “all of this is Who knows exactly?”
A big unresolved question about COVID-19 is whether, like the flu, its spread will slow down considerably during the summer. Researchers have a few theories as to why summer is a bad season for flu – higher temperatures and increased UV radiation may be inhospitable for some viruses, and / or most schools may be off session, depriving viruses of a crucial breeding ground. But if any of these theories apply to the coronavirus is not yet known.