the long game
It's the question on everyone's minds — where is COVID-19 headed now? While such an outcome is nearly impossible to predict, there are, at the very least, three distinct, "concerning possibilites" in how the virus could "shift," writes The New York Times: "It could become more transmissible, it could become better at evading our immune system, or it could become more virulent, causing more serious disease."
As for the first possibility, COVID has already grown more transmissible, but scientists do believe there to be "some basic biological limits on just how infectious a particular virus can become," notes the Times. "There are just limits to that process," explained Dr. Jesse Bloom, a viral evolution expert.
When it comes to evading immune response, there's some good news, at least so far — "This virus is mostly playing by immunological rules we understand," said virologist Dr. Shane Crotty. In other words, the immune system also has its own "tricks up its sleeve" to handle the virus, even as it evolves. "Knowing that there is this complex level of diversity in the immune system allows me to sleep better at night," said immunologist Marion Pepper.
And as for the third possibiltiy — an increase in virulence — that's "the hardest to predict," scientists said. There is no "inherent evolutionary advantage" to virulence, per the Times, and it "only matters for the virus if it works for transmission," explained evolutionary biologist Dr. Jessica Metcalf. There might be "trade-offs" between the two phenomenons, but COVID may also be special in that the virus is able to spread before people become severely ill and isolate.
Although it's too soon to tell where exactly the "arms race" is headed, global health expert Dr. Jonathan Quick notes our future "depends much, much more on what humans do than on what the virus does."