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How Does the Coronavirus Outbreak End?



Photo of a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang
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In late January, I posed a simple question to several experts in public health and epidemiology: How does the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak end? Back then, the virus was still mainly just spreading in China, and the scientists I spoke with outlined a hopeful scenario: containment.
The idea is that through identifying and isolating the sick, the virus could be kept from spreading in communities around the globe. It seemed reasonable: Containment was how the 2003 SARS outbreak — also caused by a member of the coronavirus family — ended.
Now, many experts tell Vox, that scenario seems impossible. “Two or three weeks ago, we were still hoping for containment,” says Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University. “We’re really past that. … The horse is out of the barn.”
One reason has to do with what we’ve learned about the virus itself: There’s now evidence that people who do not show severe symptoms can spread it silently. Another reason is the slow rollout of diagnostic tests in the United States and other countries like Italy and Iran: We don’t have a precise case count or know where the virus might be spreading.
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