Dr. William Haseltine is a former Harvard Medical School professor and founder of the university’s cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments who helped the U.S. respond to the HIV/AIDS and anthrax crises. He also recently returned from Wuhan, China – ground zero for the coronavirus – where he chaired the 9th U.S.-China Health Summit.
In a piece published by Fox News on Sunday, Haseltine lays out four scenarios for how the pandemic could could end.
1) Maybe the coronavirus COVID-19 will simply peter out.
“If the coronavirus proves to be seasonal in temperate climates, [that means] that new infections eventually decline on their own as the weather warms,” Haseltine writes.
The annual flu bug does that. Influenza lives longer indoors during the wintertime because the air is less humid. Plus, people spend more time indoors and usually have closer contact with people than during the summertime, meaning the bug can spread quickly as people pick up germs and touch their eyes, nose, or mouth.
But the doctor warned that even if COVID-19 ebbs as we move into the warmer months, it could still return when it gets cold again – although, he said, “we hope that by then our health system is better prepared to help those who fall severely ill to recover.”
2) Lots of people will get it, recover, and then be immune.
The virus could be muted “through herd immunity, where a significant percentage of the population becomes infected, recovers, and develops a natural immunity. The challenge is that reaching herd immunity will take a significant amount of time,” Haseltine writes.
The “herd immunity” theory has been popping up of late. Patrick Vallance, the chief science adviser to the British government, said last week that the country needed to “build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission.”
The process has been demonstrated to work. “Consider the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne illness that caused an epidemic panic in 2015 because of a link to birth abnormalities,” Technology Review wrote on Tuesday. “Two years later, in 2017, there was no longer nearly so much to worry about. A Brazilian study found by checking blood samples that 63% of the population in the northeastern beach city of Salvador had already had exposure to Zika; the researchers speculated that herd immunity had broken that outbreak.”
3) A vaccine could be discovered and deployed quickly.
“There are at least five vaccines currently in some phase of development, with one starting clinical trials just this week. That’s a promising development, but just the first phase of a lengthy process,” Hazeltine writes. “Even in the best-case scenario, it will still be many months before a successful vaccine is available to the general public.”
Vaccines usually take months to test and the Food and Drug Administration often takes even more time evaluating an experimental vaccine.
4) Development of therapeutic drugs that can treat the coronavirus.
“One option in this scenario is an antiviral drug combination that targets the RNA at the center of the coronavirus responsible for the pandemic sweeping across the world today,” Haseltine writes. “In the midst of the SARS and MERS outbreaks, a number of drug candidates that target key proteins in coronaviruses underwent lengthy laboratory and preclinical study. But the drugs were never advanced to clinical trials. That’s because there was no market for them and no government was willing to step in to guarantee the market with a commitment to stockpile the drugs.”
President Trump on Saturday expressed optimism about two drugs that he said could be “one of the biggest game changers” in medicine – hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. Hydroxychloroquine is a drug used in the treatment and prevention of malaria. Azithromycin is an antibiotic that is used to treat many different types of infections in the respiratory system, eyes, ears, and skin, as well as sexually transmitted diseases.
“With the right leadership and opportunity on our side, we may be able to begin moving toward the end of the current pandemic,” Haseltine writes. “But when this happens, we shouldn’t turn away from the lessons we are learning today.