In a bid to combat the continued rise in cases, the public is required to adopt a policy of “social distancing”, which includes working from home where possible and not undertaking any non-essential travel. Those with underlying health conditions, people over the age of 70 and pregnant women have also been told that they should self-isolate at home for a period of 12 weeks.
The government expecting coronavirus to be gone in 12 weeks? Putting absolute timelines on things is not possible and other reported ways of approaching the outbreak like simply allowing the population to develop “herd immunity”, have been described as requiring a much longer lead time – more like a year.
So how long can we really expect the coronavirus outbreak to continue and what are the proposed exit strategies in order to return to normal life?
When will coronavirus be over?
“It is impossible to put a date on it,” Dr Simon Clarke, professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading tells The Independent. “If anyone tells you a date they are staring into a crystal ball. The reality is that it will be with us forever because it has spread now.”
Dr Clarke says it is particularly challenging because it can reside in people without showing any symptoms and then go on to be spread by that person. “There is no reason to say [the virus] won’t continue to do this in the future”.
Dr Jenna Macciochi, a lecturer in immunology at the University of Sussex agrees it is hard to estimate a date: “It’s a question we probably all want to know the answer to and I doubt anyone knows for sure as it depends on many factors. I’d say we don’t currently know.”
Robert Dingwall, professor of social sciences at Nottingham Trent University describes the situation as being “impossible to give any scientifically-justifiable timetable”.
Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, says estimates are made particularly difficult because coronavirus is a novel virus. “The difficulty with any modelling or future predictions is this is an entirely new virus, and the scale of this pandemic is unprecedented in living memory.
“The extent of globalisation and international connectivity is such that the ‘end game’ is so difficult to predict with any certainty.” Although Head does say he hopes in the “next few months” cases can be limited and “reduced to much lower levels”.
“However, come the winter, there are significant concerns about a sharp increase in coronavirus cases. This could coincide with the start of flu season and is a time when hospitals and GPs are traditionally under even more pressure,” he adds.
Could a lockdown reduce the spread?
In other European countries such as Italy, authorities have implemented much stricter measures to combat the spread, placing everyone under lockdown and only allowing small numbers of people to leave the house in the case of emergencies or obtaining food and medicine.
Would such a measure work in the UK for shortening the lifespan of coronavirus? Dr Macciochi says curbing the virus in this way will depend on how well strategies are taken up by people.
“But even then once we put these actions into place, we have no idea how long for,” she says. “And if we let people go back to normal too quickly then it could backfire. If we did complete lockdown for a short period there is still a chance it wouldn’t be enough.”
Could we get a vaccine for coronavirus?
The UK’s chief medical adviser Professor Chris Whitty has said “long term, clearly a vaccine is one way out of this and we all hope that will happen as quickly as possible”.
Dr Clarke agrees that the key to combating the coronavirus will be the development of a vaccine. “That is what is going to control things. We can develop ways of controlling symptoms too but they only treat, they don’t get rid of it.”
The first person to be given an experimental coronavirus vaccine in the USA happened last week after researchers were given permission to skip the usual animal testing phase.
If vaccines are given to enough of the population (more than 60 per cent) the country will develop what is known as ‘herd immunity’ meaning the virus cannot spread so easily in the future. This herd immunity can also be (controversially) achieved by just allowing the virus to spread widely and letting individual immune systems build up a response to the virus.
Professor Dingwall says: “Coronavirus will be endemic in human populations (like seasonal influenza) until there is a safe and effective vaccine, which can be used on a mass scale to squeeze it out.
But Dr Clarke warns this isn’t as simple as it sounds. “With vaccines you have to generate an immune response that is protective enough – any old immune response won’t do. It has to be able to protect against subsequent infections when that happens.
“Of course [the vaccine] also has to be safe and it has to be long lasting enough. It is pointless giving people immunity for a couple of months.”
He says there is then the additional problem of manufacturing the vaccine in sufficient quantities and quickly enough. Professor Macciochi and Mr Head estimate the vaccine could take anywhere between 12 and 18 months to enter the market. “It could fail at any part during trial,” adds Dr Clarke.