The coronavirus pandemic has only just begun. Everyone is trying to wrap their heads around what they need to know to protect themselves and their communities, and prepare for what's next. Here are answers to some of the biggest questions our readers have about the outbreak, which we collected in a survey sent out through social media and other avenues.
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How does this end?
Nobody knows. Epidemiologists at Imperial College London suggest we could see a worst-case scenario of 264 million Americans infected and 2.2 million dead. We also don't know some important things about the virus, including how many asymptomatic cases there are, making it difficult to plan.
After the outbreak in Wuhan became public in late December, Chinese authorities began enforcing strict measures on travel and activity designed to stop the spread of the virus as aggressively as possible. It seems to be working: China reported no new cases in Wuhan on March 15. Strict measures are said to have helped reduce the number of new infections in hard-hit places like South Korea as well.
Unfortunately, for every South Korea or Singapore, there's a case like Italy, which did not handle the initial outbreak well and is now reeling from the effects, with the virus spreading incredibly fast and taxing health-care systems well beyond capacity.
That's part of the reason we don't know how this will end—we don't yet have a system of containing the virus that is universally adhered to around the world. Just last week, the UK was suggesting it would forgo strict mandates on social distancing and isolation, and instead take a slow approach that would allow over 60% of its population to become infected in order to encourage herd immunity. The about-face on this policy may have come too late.
The pandemic could reach a natural end when it finally spreads to nearly every part of the world and no longer has anywhere else to go. But that would leave an unthinkable number of people dead. We could see a combination of various antiviral treatments being fast-tracked sooner to help treat cases, and continued efforts to help slow the spread and "flatten the curve" (more on that below). But the solution that saves the most lives is a vaccine that provides immunity. That will probably take another 18 months to develop, and there's no telling yet how effective it might be.