Today there was an article on comments from Sir Mark Walport (part of Sage, the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) on the BBC that said that coronavirus would not go away and that it would remain with humans forever in one form or another.

Several days before, the head of the WHO said that he hoped that the coronavirus pandemic would be over within 2 years.

To me these statements seem to butt heads as the statement from Sir Mark Walport suggests that there will be no end to the current pandemic, while the Head of the WHO said that it may be over within 2 years. What is the scientific basis that coronavirus will be present in one form or another for a significant amount of time in the future?


Nate's answer is missing the fact that the fact that length of immunity to the coronaviruses is suspected to be less than for smallpox. In fact, for the "common cold" coronaviruses, it is actually known to be a lot less, approximately one year for common-cold coronaviruses vs 40 years for smallpox.

The situation is more complicated for SARS and probably for SARS-CoV-2 as there's much less data. It's suspected that immunity to these will be somewhat longer lasting; one study estimated 3+ years for SARS.

On more recent article (in Nature) mentions:

Researchers know little so far about how long SARS-CoV-2 immunity lasts. One study of recovering patients found that neutralizing antibodies persisted for up to 40 days after the start of infection; several other studies suggest that antibody levels dwindle after weeks or months. If COVID-19 follows a similar pattern to SARS, antibodies could persist at a high level for 5 months, with a slow decline over 2–3 years

There are various epidemiological models depending on the length of immunity (and on whether cross-immunity is conferred by other coronaviruses):

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And there's of course the issue that (unlike for polio or smallpox) the natural reservoir for SARS-like diseases is likely to still exist in the wild.

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Well, there's a huge middle ground between "not present in any form" and "pandemic". Indeed, the vast majority of infectious diseases are somewhere in this middle ground, e.g. influenza, hepatitis, various sexually transmitted infections: people regularly get infected, and there may be significant morbidity and mortality, but not at a level where the normal functioning of society is seriously impacted. So both statements are consistent with a prediction that coronavirus will get to that point.

The only way for coronavirus to not be "present in some form or another" is for it to be eradicated worldwide. So far in human history, this has only been successfully accomplished for one widespread human infectious disease, namely smallpox. According to the World Health Organization, this effort was considered complete in 1980; it made use of highly effective vaccines and still took some 20 years. (Indeed, various forms of vaccination for smallpox had been in use for some 200 years previously!) The Wikipedia page linked above lists a few other disease eradication efforts; most have been in progress for decades and are not yet complete.

So if these are any indication, even after highly effective coronavirus vaccines are available (which currently has not been established), and even if the worldwide community does dedicate itself to an eradication effort, and even if this effort is as successful as the most successful such effort to date, it would still likely take decades to complete. It is also possible, if and when coronavirus infections are reduced to a sub-pandemic level, that governments and health organizations will decide that the level is "acceptable" and that full eradication is not worth the effort and expense.

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    And even smallpox still exists in some form, namely samples in labs. – Acccumulation Aug 23 at 0:58
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    @accumulation Kept there deliberately so that if it should experience a resurgence we'll have the vaccine ready before it can take off. – Shadur Aug 23 at 7:54
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    Smallpox is not the only disease eradicated entirely. SARS is a close relative of Coronavirus and according to Wikipedia "No cases of SARS-CoV have been reported worldwide since 2004." It would be better to say that no widespread human disease has been eradicated intentionally other than smallpox. – BobTheAverage Aug 23 at 23:59
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    @BobTheAverage: This seems to be a matter of some debate; see, e.g. biomedgrid.com/pdf/AJBSR.MS.ID.001017.pdf. In particular, since SARS may still be present in animal populations which could again spread it to humans, some say on that basis it should not be considered eradicated. – Nate Eldredge Aug 24 at 0:37

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