How long will the coronavirus pandemic last?

Scott Morrison has announced the current social distancing restrictions in Australia could last six months after the federal government introduced strict measures to battle the coronavirus.

So could the way we are living now – with school closures, people working from home and only being able to leave the house for essential reasons – be the new normal for the foreseeable future? 

How long will coronavirus last around the world?

“The honest answer is we don’t really know how long the pandemic will last,” Gerry Fitzgerald, professor emeritus at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Public Health and Social Work, says.

“It will be present around the world for at least six months. Once it really hits Africa and South America then it could almost be like another pandemic starting again.”

Coronavirus live blog: Latest news and updates from Australia

A study from Imperial College in London shows that countries may need to exercise some form of restrictions or control measures for 12 to 18 months.

Passengers are seen exiting Brisbane International Airport and put onto buses where they will be taken to hotels in the CBD to start their quarantine. Source: Glenn Hunt/Getty Images

Will coronavirus ever go away completely?

There are two possible ways that COVID-19 could go away,” Associate Professor Tim Newsome, who is a virologist at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney, says.

“The first way would be through blocking transmission via containment, which was successful for a number of Ebola virus outbreaks, SARS and MERS. But COVID-19 seems to be too contagious, and mild or asymptomatic cases are able to slip through quarantine and social distancing measures.

“The second option would be eradication through vaccination. So far this has only been managed for one human disease – smallpox. Poliovirus has been on the brink of eradication for over a decade and that is with the availability of effective vaccines.

“The likely scenario is that COVID-19 will be yet another ongoing cause of human respiratory illness, a story we have witnessed repeatedly with historical flu pandemics.

“We can hope that over time as people are exposed to the virus, preferably when they are young and less susceptible to severe disease, or through vaccination, then COVID-19 cases might trend to be more mild.” 

How long will coronavirus last in Australia? 

“At the moment Australia is identifying anyone who has COVID-19 and isolating them, as well as identifying their contacts and monitoring them too,” Prof Fitzgerald says.

She said this process was called ‘test, track and trace’ and was vital because most cases in Australia have come from overseas.

“However, there are some domestic clusters. If we can test, track and trace these domestic clusters, as well as continue to quarantine people coming in from overseas, we can reduce the vulnerability of the community,” she said.

“If we shut down these domestic clusters within a month or so, we’ll be at the position China is at now, where we’re only dealing with imported cases. If we could do this, it might be possible to start easing up internal restrictions within six weeks or so.”

How long will coronavirus last in:

The UK

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said coronavirus restrictions will be in place “for a significant period” and England’s deputy chief medical officer believes it could be six months before life returns to normal.

“This is not to say we would be in complete lockdown for six months,” Dr Jenny Harries explains.

The government will review the situation every three weeks to see how things are progressing.

Italy 

Lockdown was due to end on April 3 in Italy, however it has been extended until at least April 12.

Infection rate is slowly declining, and despite rumours the lockdown will continue until July 31, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said he hopes restrictions will ease before this.

"We are actually confident that, well before this hypothetical deadline, we can truly go back to our life habits," he said.

Police officers patrol streets in Palermo, Italy, on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Source: Tullio Puglia/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Spain 

As their death toll continues to rise, Spain has extended its lockdown laws until April 11, with all non-essential workers asked not to leave the house for the next two weeks.

There is no news on when these restrictions may be lifted.

The rest of Europe

  • After two weeks in lockdown, France and Belgium have both extended their self-isolation policies by another two weeks.

  • Germany has said it won’t lift its measures until April 20.

A woman wearing a face mask on the outskirts of the Segovia aqueduct on April 1, 2020 in Segovia, Spain. Source: David Benito/Getty Images

The US

Despite Donald Trump’s previous predictions the US would be “raring to go” by Easter, coronavirus cases in the US are now at 125,000 – the first country in the world to report a figure over 100,000.

A field hospital in New York's Central Park across Fifth Avenue from Mt. Sinai Hospital. Source: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Mr Trump has since extended the social distancing guidelines until April 30.

China 

After a two-month lockdown, China has started to ease its restrictions. Small groups of people have started to be allowed to leave their residential compounds, go food shopping and walk on the street.

The first trains have started to arrive back in the city, carrying workers from the provinces.

People have been allowed to start returning to work if they don’t have a temperature and can provide a ‘green health code’ signifying their virus-free status. 

“Ironically, China is probably the safest place to be right now,” Prof Fitzgerald says. 

A woman performs Tai Chi wearing a mask as part of precautionary measures against the spread of the COVID-19 in Beijing. Source: Fred Lee/Getty Images

How will restrictions ease when coronavirus is under control?

In Australia, Prof Fitzgerald suspects “schools and childcare centres might be amongst the first places to re-open, so parents can go back to work, and the economy can start moving again. But social distancing and personal hygiene will remain important”.

International borders are likely to be the final thing to open, with estimates this could take about a year in order to really make sure the virus is eradicated.

Is there a test that will help diagnose coronavirus?

At the moment, tests only show if you currently have COVID-19, not if you’ve had it or are early in the incubation period.

“There’s an antibody test being developed which will show the body’s immunity to the virus,” Prof Fitzgerald says.

“This will allow us to track people who have had it and those that have it but are asymptomatic. This will help control the spread.” 

When will a vaccine be available to stop coronavirus?

There are several vaccines in development and human trials will start imminently.

However, this doesn’t guarantee they will be effective or in general circulation any time soon.

We cannot expect to develop a vaccine earlier than the oft circulated 12-18 months,” Prof Newsome says.

“We have never made a vaccine to any coronavirus, a family that includes viruses that cause SARS, MERS and the common cold.”

However, he believes the urgency could mean something is developed.

“This is a high-risk, high-reward scenario; most candidates will fail, but a safe and effective vaccine is by far the best long-term solution for mitigating the impact of COVID-19.”

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