COVID-19 May Never Go Away — With Or Without A Vaccine

Originally published on August 9, 2020 9:06 am

Humans have never been particularly good at eradicating entire viruses, and COVID-19 might not be any different.

More than 19 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus globally, and at least 722,000 have died. In the U.S., nearly 5 million people have tested positive and more than 160,000 have died. While scientists are racing to find a cure for the virus, there's a chance COVID-19 will never fully go away — with or without a vaccine.

But that doesn't mean everyone will have to self-isolate forever.

Vineet Menachery, a coronavirus researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told NPR's Weekend Edition that one of the more likely scenarios is that the spread of COVID-19 will eventually be slowed as a result of herd immunity. He said that he'd be surprised "if we're still wearing masks and 6-feet distancing in two or three years" and that in time, the virus could become no more serious than the common cold.


Interview Highlights

On why it is so hard to eradicate this virus

The first thing to remember is that we haven't been successful at eradicating many viruses at all. Really the lone exception is smallpox, but many of these viruses exist not only in the human population but in animal populations. So coronaviruses may be removed from the human population, like SARS coronavirus in 2002, but we know that those viruses or viruses that are similar to it still exist in nature and at any time they may gain the tools to reemerge in humans again.

On the outlook for COVID-19 immunity as more people are exposed to the virus

So it's still up in the air. COVID-19 is really unique in a couple of different ways. One, like the common cold coronaviruses, it spreads very easily, but unlike those, this causes this severe disease. What we know about the common cold coronaviruses is that the immunity to those don't actually stay that long. So what is not clear is if immunity will wane over time and that in two or three years you could be exposed and get this virus again. Similar to how you could get the common cold coronavirus every few years.

On the other end of that, viruses like SARS and MERS, if you get those infections and you overcome them and you recover, generally your immune response lasts a long time. So what we don't know with COVID-19 is which of these two poles it may end up at.

On what he predicts for the future for COVID-19

I'd be surprised if we're still wearing masks and 6-feet distancing in two or three years. I think the most likely outcome is that we'll eventually get to herd immunity. The best way to get to herd immunity is through a vaccine and some certain populations who have already been exposed or will be exposed.

And then the expectation I have is that this virus will actually become the next common cold coronavirus. What we don't know with these common cold coronaviruses is if they went through a similar transition period.

So, say something like OC43, which is a common cold coronavirus that was originally from cows. It's been historically reported that there was an outbreak associated with the transition of this virus from cows to humans that was very severe disease, and then after a few years, the virus became just the common cold. So in three to five years it may be that you're still getting COVID-19 in certain populations of people or every few years, but the expectation is hopefully that it'll just be a common cold and it's something that we can just each deal with and it won't lead to hospitalization and the shutting down of society.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Seventy-five years ago this month, the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities. This is President Harry Truman addressing the nation after the first attack on Hiroshima.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY TRUMAN: With this bomb, we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On Aug. 9, 1945, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In total, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, with more injured and disfigured. Shortly after, Japan's Emperor Hirohito unconditionally surrendered, ending the Second World War. Here he is addressing his nation, acknowledging the new terrible force that had been unleashed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HIROHITO: (Speaking Japanese).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, "the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable," adding that it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. Our next guest was eight months old when the first atomic bomb hit her home city of Hiroshima. Her name is Koko Kondo. Her father was Methodist minister Kiyoshi Tanimoto. But on the day of the attack, baby Koko was at her home with her mother.

KOKO KONDO: That day, Aug. 6, 1945 - the clear blue skies and the air raid was off, so people start, you know, going out. And, for example, my case - my father left early in the morning to help the other, you know, people. Then suddenly, the whole house crashed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Koko and her mother were trapped beneath the rubble.

KONDO: She moved little by little, and she made a little hole. First, she put me out. Then she got out. She said when she was out from the house, the environment was completely different, fires all over the place. So we barely made it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The nuclear age had arrived.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Hiroshima, seen from the air after the atomic bomb blast that virtually erased the city of 340,000 people from the Earth.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On the ground in Japan, there was horror, but America celebrated what they believed the bombs had achieved - the end of World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A day of days for America and her allies. Washington is jubilant. And in Chicago, more than a million sing and dance in the streets. Joy is unconfined.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Koko and her family and other survivors stayed in the city. They believed the worst was over.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But then came something that would forever change perception of the bomb. It started in the hospitals.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: People began to get sick.

KONDO: Well, at that time, no one knew how to cure or - no medicine, nothing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They didn't understand about radiation sickness.

KONDO: Oh, of course, we didn't know there was radiation. So we did not go away. We stayed in Hiroshima city. May I tell you about my experience when I was a little girl?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course.

KONDO: My fathers were Methodist minister, so his church was located about less than half a mile from a hypocenter. That means, you know, ground zero.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She recounts how a lot of survivors would come to her father's church. And when Koko was about 3, she remembers one of them brushing her hair.

KONDO: So I turned my head. I did see the fingers which holding the comb. The fingers were melted together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, my goodness.

KONDO: I was shocked. But I didn't ask, even as a little girl, what's happened to your, you know, hand? What's happened to your face? What's happened to your body?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And as she realized over the years what had been wrought by the American attack, she vowed revenge.

KONDO: As a child, I thought, if they never dropped the bomb, many children didn't have to, you know, became a orphan. So I said, someday, when I'm grown up, I am going to revenge.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And this is when Koko's story becomes surreal because, in a strange twist of fate, she was able to confront the person who actually dropped the bomb on her city. And it happened on a 1950s American talk show hosted by Ralph Edwards.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS YOUR LIFE")

RALPH EDWARDS: This is your life. America's most talked-about program is brought to you by...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Koko's father, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, had been invited onto the program. He was asked about the day the bomb dropped.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS YOUR LIFE")

EDWARDS: What did you see?

KIYOSHI TANIMOTO: I saw the whole city on fire and many people running away from the city in the - in silence, their skin peeling off, hanging from face, from arm, but strength to stay in silence. It looked like a procession of ghosts.

EDWARDS: Did you know...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ten-year-old Koko was there, too, on that stage. And then they brought on Captain Robert Lewis, who co-piloted the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb over Hiroshima. And this is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS IS YOUR LIFE")

ROBERT LEWIS: Shortly after, we turned back to see what had happened. And there, in front of our eyes, the city of Hiroshima disappeared.

EDWARDS: Now, you entered something in your log at that time.

LEWIS: As I said before, Mr. Edwards, I wrote down later, my God, what have we done?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Koko recalls her mother pointing at Captain Lewis.

KONDO: She said, Koko, that person over there - his name is Captain Robert Lewis, who was a co-pilot of the Enola Gay. I was so shocked because, you know, I wanted to meet those people who owned the airplane so I can do the revenge. So just - I was staring at his eye - you the bad one, I'm the good one. But everybody just heard what he said. Right after he said, I wrote it on my log, my God, what have we done? And as I told you, I was staring at his eye, and I saw the tear came down. When I saw that, my goodness. I thought he is a monster. He's the same human beings, like me. If I hate, I should not hate this guy. I should hate the war itself, which we, human being, caused.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She came up close to him.

KONDO: I just wanted to touch his hand because I thought that's the - my way of showing, I'm sorry I hated you, but it's not you who I should hate. And he felt little Koko's hand touched his hand. He hold my hand very tightly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That meeting changed the course of Koko Kondo's life. She decided then and there she wanted to fight for peace and the end of nuclear weapons. It was many years later...

KONDO: One day I opened the newspaper. The newspaper said Captain Lewis passed away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says when she goes to the park that honors the dead of Hiroshima in Japan, she always remembers the man who dropped the bomb on her city, and she vows to herself...

KONDO: Captain Lewis, please rest in peace. We shall never repeat our mistake.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's peace activist Koko Kondo reflecting on 75 years since surviving the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan. Her life's work has been to abolish nuclear weapons. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.