Virus Expert Says COVID Will 'Not Go Away' and Could Be Around for 'Rest of Our Lives'

A renowned Columbia University virus expert has warned COVID-19 is not going to go away and that life may never return to normal.

Dr. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, told Spanish newspaper El Pais in an interview published today that the public is likely to "live the rest of our lives with this virus."

He noted future generations will have to be vaccinated and those who have received the treatment will still need additional booster doses. "It is going to be a recurring problem. I don't think life will ever be completely normal again," Dr. Lipkin added.

The scientist, who has spent decades researching microbes, pathogens and outbreak response, played a role assisting China during the 2003 SARS crisis, has advised Saudi Arabia on the MERS virus and was a consultant for the 2011 movie Contagion.

Alongside his team, Lipkin identified West Nile virus as the cause of an epidemic in New York in 1999 and has found or logged more than 500 infectious agents to date.

More recently—like much of the scientific community—he has focused on the analysis of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19.

Despite a pessimistic forecast on a return to pre-COVID lifestyles, the scientist said the apparent breakthroughs of Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech had been "staggering" and noted that they are likely to reduce the level of virus in circulation.

That too, however, comes with some big caveats. Namely, how vaccines are transported and distributed to nations across the world, many not as wealthy as America.

Dr. Lipkin told El Pais: "We will be able to distribute these vaccines in most of Europe and the U.S. But getting them to developing countries will be a daunting challenge. In these areas we need vaccines that do not need cold [storage]."

Pfizer and BioNTech said on November 18 their candidate, BNT162b2, appeared to be up to 95 percent effective for treating COVID-19. They have said up to 50 million doses could be made in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021.

On November 16, pharmaceutical company Moderna said its candidate, mRNA-1273, had an efficacy of 94.5 percent. It said 20 million doses could be ready by the year's end, with between 500 million and 1 billion doses possible globally in 2021.

Many countries have secured massive quantities of leading virus candidates, leading to concerns that treatments for developing nations could be delayed.

As noted by Dr. Lipkin, the candidates need to be stored at cold temperatures: -70 C for Pfizer/BioNTech, and -20 C for Moderna.

The virus expert, who has been contacted for comment by Newsweek, told El Pais the only way to return normality is to achieve what he called "global group immunity," with between 60 and 80 percent of the world's population being deemed immune.

And he called for more consistent policies on combating the ongoing pandemic from the U.S. and E.U., comparing their response to China, which claims to have dramatically reduced its cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak.

"In China, if the government decides to do something, it is done. It is not like in Spain or the United States where there can be debate about confinements and closures. Everybody obeys. There are advantages and disadvantages of dictatorships, but in public health clearly the policy is much more consistent," Dr. Lipkin said.

Ultimately, the virus-hunter praised the continued work of researchers and scientists. "COVID has shown us our vulnerability to emerging viruses, but it has also demonstrated our ability to respond with science, compassion and a common goal," he said.

Urgent Care workers
Urgent Care workers wearing personal protective equipment perform drive-up COVID-19 testing for students and faculty at University Prep Value High School on September 18, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. A top virus expert has warned COVID-19 will "not go away." Kevin Winter/Getty