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How COVID-19 Could Become an Annoying Cold Your Kids Get

A new study maps out what the future of the coronavirus could look like — and it's mostly good news.

One day, COVID-19 could look a lot like a common cold, a new study suggests. Here’s why that’s actually good news.

One of the reasons COVID-19 has been so devastating is that it’s caused by a novel coronavirus, an unfamiliar pathogen that can overwhelm immune systems that haven’t been trained to fight it. That’s changing now, as more people are infected and build an immune response to the virus and as more people receive the vaccine — which uses revolutionary medical science where your body is taught to recognize, and then fight, the novel COVID-19, even as new strains come out. These promising developments beg the question: what will COVID-19 be like in a post-pandemic world? A new study in Science outlines a likely answer, and it’s actually pretty damn good news.

“Our analysis of immunological and epidemiological data on endemic human coronaviruses (HCoVs) shows that infection-blocking immunity wanes rapidly, but disease-reducing immunity is long-lived,” the abstract reads. In other words, people will still get sick but they won’t get nearly as sick as they have for the past year.

“Our model, incorporating these components of immunity, recapitulates both the current severity of CoV-2 and the benign nature of HCoVs, suggesting that once the endemic phase is reached and primary exposure is in childhood, CoV-2 may be no more virulent than the common cold.” Endemic pathogens are regularly found in the population and rarely cause serious illness.

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“The timing of how long it takes to get to this sort of endemic state depends on how quickly the disease is spreading, and how quickly vaccination is rolled out,” said Jennie Lavine, the postdoctoral fellow at Emory University in Atlanta who led the study told the New York Times. “[T]he name of the game is getting everyone exposed for the first time to the vaccine as quickly as possible.”

Dr. Lavine and her coauthors examined the trajectories of SARS, MERS, and four viruses that cause the common cold. They found that SARS CoV-2 is probably most like the latter. If that’s true, then people will be infected with SARS CoV-2 between the ages of 3 and 5, becoming reinfected in the years after that, which will continue to boost their immunity.

In this scenario, the virus will keep circulating for years. But if all that means is that we come down with a new type of common cold, with the sniffles, a day or two of couch-rest, and some hot soup, then hey, we’ll take it.