SOCIAL distancing measures may have to remain in place on and off until 2022, a study suggests.
Lifting restrictions too soon risks overwhelming hospitals with a surge in new cases, researchers say.
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Their model shows that relaxing social distancing in the autumn may lead to a winter outbreak overlapping with flu season.
The US team say, without new treatments, social distancing will need to be maintained into 2022.
And a resurgence in Covid-19 could occur as far in the future as 2025.
The authors write in the Science journal: "Our goal in modelling such policies is not to endorse them but to identify likely trajectories of the epidemic under alternative approaches."
They say: "Additional interventions, including expanded critical care capacity and an effective therapeutic, would improve the success of intermittent distancing and hasten the acquisition of herd immunity.
"Longitudinal serological studies are urgently needed to determine the extent and duration of immunity to Sars-CoV-2.
"Even in the event of apparent elimination, Sars-CoV-2 surveillance should be maintained since a resurgence in contagion could be possible as late as 2024."
University of Edinburgh Professor Mark Woolhouse said: "This is an excellent study that uses mathematical models to explore the dynamics of Covid-19 over a period of several years.
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"In contrast to previously published studies that have focused on the coming weeks or months.
"It is important to recognise that it is a model. It is consistent with current data but is nonetheless based on a series of assumptions – for example about acquired immunity – that are yet to be confirmed.
"The study should therefore be regarded as suggesting possible scenarios rather than making firm predictions."
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