What Will Happen If a Coronavirus Vaccine Never Exists?


Much of the planet is at a standstill due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with shuttered businesses, overwhelmed hospitals, and millions of families mourning the loss of loved ones due to the coronavirus, the thread of hope that humanity is clinging to is the promise of a vaccine that will let us go back to normal.

But what if scientists aren’t able to develop a vaccine to eradicate this illness? How would society move forward?

Lockdown plans ready for implementation

In this worst-case scenario, our top scientists are not able to find a successful vaccine against COVID-19, and as a society we would have to learn to live with coronavirus in our midst.

While bleak, this is not an unheard-of reality: some illnesses take decades to eradicate, and some are still being studied without a cure on the horizon. There is no vaccine against HIV, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo is grappling with an outbreak of Ebola that started in August of 2018.

If a vaccine for COVID-19 isn’t possible, testing and contact tracing would become a regular part of life, and municipalities would have to develop lockdown protocols that would allow them to quickly enact stay-at-home orders if there was a spike of cases in their communities.

Specialized treatment

Medical professionals are currently trying a variety of options to see what is most effective at treating COVID-19, from the experimental anti-Ebola drug remdesivir to plasma infusions from people who have been infected by COVID-19 and gotten better. As trials continue, experts will have a better idea of what hospitals around the world can do to treat their patients successfully.

"In HIV, we've been able to make that a chronic disease with antivirals. We've done what we've always hoped to do with cancer. It's not the death sentence it was in the 1980s,” Paul Offitt, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist who co-invented the rotavirus vaccine, told CNN.

A different business plan

Though effective in containing the virus, lockdown plans are extremely detrimental to economies, and like what is already happening around the world, cities would begin to re-open. Would people be able to eat in restaurants and go shopping at the mall? Yes, but not like before. Whether it’s plexiglass partitions between tables, a small number of patrons allowed in stores at a time, or mandatory mask-wearing for all people over the age of 2 or 3, businesses would need to adapt to ensure the safety of their staff and customers.

White-collar workers who are able to work from home could be asked to do so on a permanent basis or be asked to come into the office only on select days so that their workplaces are never at more than 50% capacity. Protective gear for essential workers would become commonplace, and hand sanitizer stations could become readily available in public spaces.

Telehealth could also become more common. Routine check-ups with a primary care physician or therapy sessions could be done via videoconference, limiting face-to-face interactions unless absolutely necessary.

A social contract

Personal responsibility would become paramount in order to ensure the safety of others. Instead of toughing out the sniffles, people with mild cold symptoms would be encouraged to stay home and monitor themselves to make sure that they don’t have COVID-19. Testing and contact tracing would then come into play, allowing public health officials to squash a possible outbreak quickly. But in order for that to work, people would have to report their symptoms through pre-designated channels.

Guest lists for what would have been blowout birthday parties and huge weddings in the past would be trimmed down and going to a sports bar to catch a game wouldn’t be as common. People could still go to sporting events or concerts, but there would be fewer people in the crowd, or empty seats between spectators.

Movies that before were only released in theaters could have simultaneous releases in an on-demand format, and drive-in theaters could have a resurgence. Religious services could be live-streamed or done in outdoor spaces to allow congregants to worship together but not in close proximity.

Why we shouldn’t give up hope

Is never having a vaccine a scary possibility? Yes. But there are several things that give us a fighting chance against COVID-19, and that experts point to as a sign that a vaccine is not out of the realm of possibility.

It does not mutate rapidly. Scientists now have a better understanding of what they’re up against compared to just a few months ago. While it’s a tricky virus, COVID-19 doesn’t change so fast that a vaccine is either difficult to create (like an HIV vaccine) or something that rapidly becomes obsolete (like flu vaccines that need to be recreated every year).

The entire world is on the same team. Dozens of scientific teams around the world are racing to find a vaccine that works against the coronavirus. There are multiple human trials, with some studying vaccines that give a low dose of the inactive virus, some using a modified adenovirus, and others using synthetic messenger RNA, which will allow the immune system to recognize COVID-19 if it enters the body.

Some mitigation efforts will continue to protect us. Lifestyle changes that people have adopted due to the pandemic, like frequent handwashing, may become permanent. Wearing masks in public to avoid the spread of disease, already done in parts of Asia, could become commonplace in the rest of the world. As parts of the workforce prove that they’re able to successfully do their jobs from home, rush-hour traffic or crowded trains could become nonexistent or substantially diminished, even after others return to their workplaces.

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