Coronavirus identified six months ago - what could the rest of 2020 hold?

Young woman wearing surgical mask in front of home
With the coronavirus identified six months ago, many are wondering how the outbreak could play out in the rest of 2020. (Getty Images)

The novel coronavirus was formally identified six months ago on 31 December.

What started as a handful of cases in the Chinese city Wuhan grew into an unprecedented pandemic, with more than 17 million confirmed incidences since the outbreak began.

While the global death toll exceeds 673,000, officials have warned fatalities are far from the only consequence.

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Lockdowns have battered the worldwide economy, while postponed cancer screenings are said to have left millions in a “care backlog” in the UK alone.

The easing of restrictions means some semblance of normality has returned for many, however, experts have stressed the coronavirus will be with us for some time, with a vaccine often being hailed as the way back to life as we knew it.

Six months into the outbreak, many are undoubtedly wondering what the rest of 2020 may hold.

31 July 2020, Hessen, Frankfurt/Main: Daniela Kaiser-Schmied, head of a children's centre in the Bornheim district, has stuck information with the hygiene rules on a blackboard at the entrance for parents. Unions expect a difficult start of the facilities after the day-care holidays in Hesse. With the end of the summer holidays in mid-August, more children than ever before in the Corona pandemic will have to be looked after in the day-care centres. Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst/dpa (Photo by Frank Rumpenhorst/picture alliance via Getty Images)
The head of a children's centre wears a mask in Hessen, Germany. More than 17 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed since the start of the outbreak. (Getty Images)

How could the global situation play out?

While no one has a crystal ball, one expert has warned the global situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

“At this point in time the pandemic is gathering pace,” Dr Michael Head from the University of Southampton told Yahoo UK.

“India, Brazil and the US have many new cases. Sub-saharan Africa is spiralling.

“I expect to see a continued acceleration of the pandemic.

“It’s not going to go away anytime soon; it’ll get worse before it gets better.”

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Europe, once the epicentre of the pandemic, has gradually reopened. While lockdowns were never intended to be permanent, renewed socialising has caused the number of infected people to creep back up.

“In Europe, there are upticks in new daily cases,” said Dr Head. “In the UK, it’s not massive, but they are going up.”

A spike in incidences has led to a ban on separate households meeting up in parts of northern England.

Surging cases in Luxembourg and parts of Spain also mean anyone arriving in the UK from these countries must quarantine for 14 days.

“It’s not a resurgence per se, but there are new cases,” said Dr Head. “We will see spikes or second waves.”

What is the risk of a second wave?

An infectious wave has no set definition. It is broadly considered a rise in cases, followed by a decline, which may occur several times over.

The start of a second wave is usually said to take place after an initial outbreak has been brought under control, rather than the two bleeding into each other.

While a resurgence of cases will inevitably lead to deaths, Dr Head stressed “countries can’t stay locked down forever”.

Since the coronavirus outbreak really took hold in the UK around March, testing has come on a long way.

Anyone with the tell-tale fever, cough, or loss of taste or smell is encouraged to get tested.

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“Although the current testing regime does not catch every positive case, we do have a much better sight of the virus,” Professor James Naismith from the Rosalind Franklin Institute told Yahoo UK.

“The increase in cases was to be expected. As the lockdown eases, the opportunity for the virus to spread will increase.

“The government intervention that will make the most difference in keeping the lid on this flare-up is the isolation of positive cases.”

While measures are in place, Professor Naismith believes a second wave is “highly likely”.

“I remain concerned not enough effort has been put into isolation measures, for example financial support or free hotel stays,” he said.

“It’s self-defeating to vilify young people who are infectious but otherwise well for not wanting to keep making disproportionately heavy financial and life sacrifices.”

How likely is another national lockdown?

When it comes to another nationwide lockdown, experts have mixed opinions.

“Now we’re a few months in, we have knowledge of how [the coronavirus] spreads and who’s at risk,” said Dr Head.

“[Therefore], local lockdowns are more likely.”

Scientists have repeatedly expressed concern over a second wave as the UK heads into winter, when seasonal flu is also circulating.

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Although unclear, respiratory viral infections are thought to become more common as people huddle together indoors.

This threat leaves Professor Naismith less confident another national lockdown is off the cards.

“With the normal winter illnesses and greater indoor living, we could see a return to exponential growth in COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] cases that overwhelms the NHS and requires complete lockdown,” he said.

“Many scientists have consistently emphasised we have only short time to get our systems ready to prevent this.”

Professor Michael Tildesley from the University of Warwick hopes “we can manage” with local lockdowns. If these are unsuccessful, however, “we might need larger scale controls”, he said.

What are realistic vaccine expectations?

Scientists around the world are racing to develop a vaccine.

Hopes were raised after a promising candidate stimulated an immune response in an early-stage clinical trial.

Experts praised the “exciting” results, but stressed “it is not the end of the road, far from it”.

“I’ll be amazed if we have a vaccine distributed in the next six months,” said Dr Head.

“At Easter I said [maybe a jab will be ready in] 12 months. I still think that’s the earliest realistic estimate to have a vaccine available, manufactured and distributed.”

Professor Naismith agreed a jab will not be available in the near future.

“Optimistically a vaccine campaign could be underway by the end of this year,” he said. “More realistically sometime next year.”

Even if a vaccine is developed, it is unclear how long immunity may last.

“We can’t think of a vaccine as our magic bullet out of this,” Professor Tildesley told Yahoo UK.

A Muslim worshipper carries his mat as he arrives at Maryam Mosque in the city of Caen northwestern France on July 31, 2020 to celebrate Eid Al-Adha. - Eid Al-Adha is celebrated each year by Muslims sacrificing various animals according to religious traditions, including cows, camels, goats and sheep. The festival marks the end of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and commemorates Prophet Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son to show obedience to God. Mosques started to reopen as France eases lockdown measures after the spreading of the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) while respecting barrier gestures. (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP) (Photo by SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty Images)
A man wears a mask in Caen, northwest France. Globally, the coronavirus death toll has exceeded 673,000. (Getty Images)

What is the best-case scenario?

With the UK approaching autumn, Professor Naismith sees a best-case scenario as “keeping infection levels under control” as temperatures drop.

“In this scenario we will have hundreds of infections per week and a small number of deaths,” he said.

Professor Tildesley hopes the outbreak can be controlled with local lockdowns.

“I don’t think in six months time this will have gone away, but [the best case scenario would be] we are successful at managing this with local controls,” he said.

“The key unknown is adherence. If we go into lockdown again, is that going to be sustainable?

“People have fundamentally changed their lives in the past six months. There will become a point when people want to get their lives back.”

In the meantime, Dr Head stressed Britons must “take care” when out and about.

“Encourage meeting outdoors in small groups,” he said. “Wash your hands a lot.

“Those are aspects of infection control most of us can do quite easily.

“We need to do our bit to reduce the risk of transmission for the next few months at least.”

Professor Naismith agreed, adding: “We all still have a role to play: isolate if we are sick or test positive, wash our hands regularly, socially distance and wear a mask indoors.”

Officials also must stay “on the ball” to keep infections at bay.

“Surveillance systems have to be on high alert at all times,” said Dr Head.

“Track and trace needs to be on the ball.

“We must react and bring in new [quarantine] rules as new cases occur around the globe.”

With the outbreak a worldwide issue, Dr Gail Carson from the University of Oxford emphasised the need for collaboration.

“This is a unique situation as we find ourselves recovering, responding and preparing all at the same time,” she said.

“Countries must learn from each other and this is where the ‘eagle eye’ view [of the] World Health Organization can come in.

“Governments need to communicate regularly across the world to learn real time what measures work in helping ease out of lockdown, the processes involved to support that and to recognise the warning signs of an increase in viral spread.

“Do not let the virus activity drive us apart as countries but bring us together to protect our health, economy, political relations and society.”