Researchers at the University of Utah are predicting that within a decade, the COVID-19 virus will be thought of much as the common cold is today — not much more than a nuisance. Using mathematical models that incorporate lessons learned from the current pandemic on how our body’s immunity changes over time, the scientists think the virus will cause no more than cold-like coughs and sniffles. The research was published in the journal Viruses.

“This shows a possible future that has not yet been fully addressed,” said Fred Adler, professor of mathematics and biological sciences at the UofU. “Over the next decade, the severity of COVID-19 may decrease as populations collectively develop immunity.”

The findings suggest that changes in the disease could be driven by adaptations of our immune response rather than by changes in the virus itself. Adler was senior author on the publication with Alexander Beams, a graduate student in the Department of Mathematics and the Division of Epidemiology at University of Utah Health, and undergraduate co-author Rebecca Bateman.

Although SARS-CoV-2 is the best-known member of that virus family, other seasonal coronaviruses circulate in the human population — and they are much more benign, Adler said. Some evidence indicates that one of these cold-causing relatives might have once been severe, giving rise to the “Russian flu” pandemic in the late 19th century. The parallels led the UofU scientists to wonder whether the severity of SARS-CoV-2 could similarly lessen over time. 

To test the idea, they built mathematical models incorporating evidence on the body’s immune response to SARS-CoV-2 based on data from the current pandemic. Running several versions of these scenarios showed that the three mechanisms in combination set up a situation where an increasing proportion of the population will become predisposed for mild disease over the long term. The scientists felt the transformation was significant enough that it needed a new term. In this scenario, SARS-CoV-2 would become “just another seasonal coronavirus,” or JASC for short.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, no one had seen the virus before,” Adler explained. “Our immune system was not prepared.” The models show that as more adults become partially immune, whether through prior infection or vaccination, severe infections all but disappear over the next decade. Eventually, the only people who will be exposed to the virus for the first time will be children — and they’re naturally less prone to severe disease.

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