Coronavirus: How The Pandemic Could Play Out In 2021

In countries that relaxed social distancing rules for Christmas, we might see a post-Christmas spike in cases. In this case, vaccines are unlikely to change much initially – the disease will have too much momentum in early 2021. This will also probably be the case in the UK thanks to the new strain of the virus, even though restrictions weren’t lifted for many. Public awareness of the disease’s momentum is needed, to avoid loss of confidence in vaccination.

How will the pandemic unfold?

After people have had COVID-19 (or received a vaccine), they become immune (at least in the short term). Those infected later then increasingly have contact with immune people rather than susceptible ones. Transmission therefore falls and eventually the disease stops spreading – this is known as herd immunity.

The level of immunity across the population needed to stop the virus spreading isn’t precisely known. It’s thought to be between 60% and 80%. We’re currently nowhere near that – meaning billions around the world will need to be vaccinated to stop the virus spreading.

This also relies on vaccines preventing transmission of the virus, which hasn’t yet been proved. If it is, we’ll see a decline in COVID-19 cases, perhaps as early as spring 2021. However, lockdowns and other measures will still be needed to limit transmission while vaccination builds up population immunity – particularly wherever the more infectious strain of the virus has taken hold.

In contrast, if the vaccine only prevents infected individuals from becoming seriously ill, we will be left relying on infections to build up herd immunity. In this scenario, vaccinating the vulnerable would reduce the death rate, but serious illness and long COVID affecting younger people would likely persist.

What’s likely to change?

Vaccines aren’t a silver bullet – some level of precaution will need to be maintained for months. In areas where the highly infectious strain is rampant, high-level restrictions may last until vaccine roll-out has finished. Any changes will come slowly, primarily in the area of care home visits and reopening hospitals for regular treatment.

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