From masks to 'JASC': Utah doctors ask what the long-term future of COVID-19 will be

(Steve Griffin, Deseret News, File)



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SALT LAKE CITY — What will COVID-19 look like 10 years from now? Scientists at the University of Utah suggest it may become nothing more than a head cold, just another seasonal virus. That's based on sophisticated mathematical modeling from university researchers.

"We're never going to make this thing go extinct. It's not going to be like smallpox or polio. It's going be around forever," said Fred Adler, Ph.D., a professor of mathematics and biological sciences at the University of Utah.

He likes to ask questions other people aren't asking. So, instead of focusing on the short-term dynamics of the virus during the pandemic, he focused on what the coronavirus virus could look like in a decade.

"That's all we do as scientists, right? We try to figure stuff out. And we're like… it seems to work like this. What does that mean? And mathematical models are really the only way we have to see what it means as we project into the future," the mathematician said.

So, Adler and his colleagues developed models based on lessons learned from the pandemic on how our immunity changes over time. He used three assumptions that might make the coronavirus less severe.

Those assumptions are:

  • Children get mild cases.
  • Mild cases tend to produce more mild cases.
  • Adults who have had COVID-19 or have been vaccinated are protected against severe disease.

"When we include all three of those things together, then we end up at this thing we call JASC — just another seasonal coronavirus," Adler said. If all of those assumptions don't play out, then we end up with something in between COVID-19 and just another seasonal coronavirus.

"It's definitely going to be not as bad as it is now, and I'm hoping that it ends up at the other end as just another cold," Adler said. "But, it's going to be somewhere in between, and the models help us know what we need to measure and study to figure that out in advance."

That research is published in the journal Viruses. Adler hopes that in the future, this kind of modeling could be used in vaccination planning and public policy.

"If it's going to be around forever, like the cold, then we should use public policy, vaccination and treatments and maybe nonpharmaceutical interventions to make sure it stays where we want it to be, which is just another cold."

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Jed Boal

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