The Future of the Coronavirus? An Annoying Childhood Infection

New research suggests that the virus will be of concern only in children younger than 5, subjecting even them to mere sniffles or no symptoms at all.Credit...

As millions are inoculated against the coronavirus, and the pandemic’s end finally seems to glimmer into view, scientists are envisioning what a post-vaccine world might look like — and what they see is comforting.

The coronavirus is here to stay, but once most adults are immune — following natural infection or vaccination — the virus will be no more of a threat than the common cold, according to a study published in the journal Science on Tuesday.

The virus is a grim menace now because it is an unfamiliar pathogen that can overwhelm the adult immune system, which has not been trained to fight it. That will no longer be the case once everyone has been exposed to either the virus or vaccine.

Children, on the other hand, are constantly challenged by pathogens that are new to their bodies, and that is one reason they are more adept than adults at fending off the coronavirus. Eventually, the study suggests, the virus will be of concern only in children younger than 5, subjecting even them to mere sniffles — or no symptoms at all.

In other words, the coronavirus will become “endemic,” a pathogen that circulates at low levels and only rarely causes serious illness.

“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, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University in Atlanta, who led the study.

“So really, the name of the game is getting everyone exposed for the first time to the vaccine as quickly as possible.”

When and how the common cold coronaviruses first appeared is a mystery, but since the emergence of the new coronavirus, some scientists have revisited a theory that a pandemic in 1890, which killed about one million people worldwide, may have been caused by OC-43, one of the four common cold coronaviruses.

“People have suggested that the human population developed a low-grade, broad immunity to OC-43 that terminated the pandemic,” said Andre Veillette, an immunologist at Montreal Clinical Research Institute in Canada. “This coronavirus currently broadly circulates in the community in a rather peaceful way.”