If a coronavirus vaccine fails to become available quickly, social distancing might be here until 2022. That's according to new research published in the journal Science on Tuesday. Researchers from Harvard took what is known about COVID-19 and other coronaviruses and used computer models to simulate various scenarios for how the pandemic could play out, CNN and Bloomberg report. The key line: In order to contain the virus, "Intermittent distancing may be required into 2022 unless critical care capacity is increased substantially or a treatment or vaccine becomes available." And even then, if the virus appears to have been eliminated, "surveillance should be maintained since a resurgence in contagion could be possible as late as 2024." Researchers warn that if social distancing is practiced intermittently, outbreaks could occur quickly each time restrictions are lifted.
That's why, they say, widespread testing would need to be carried out so it quickly becomes clear when a certain threshold has been passed and restrictions need to be reinstated, per ScienceAlert. This intermittent approach will work better than keeping things locked down indefinitely—one model showed that it's possible for social distancing to be "so effective that virtually no population immunity is built," leading to an eventual peak as bad as letting the virus spread uncontrolled. A lot remains unknown, but Forbes reports researchers believe resurgences are likely each winter similar to the flu or the common cold—which is often caused by less severe coronaviruses. Not happy about the idea of social distancing through 2022? The researchers say "new therapeutics, vaccines, or other interventions such as aggressive contact tracing and quarantine" could all help with controlling the virus and lessening the need for distancing measures. (Read more coronavirus stories.)