The coronavirus outbreak is still spreading and there are close to 25,000 confirmed cases worldwide, with at least 500 people expected to have died.
The outbreak originated in Wuhan, China, last month.
But already, medical experts are starting to look at what happens next.
There are two likely outcomes from the current state of the outbreak. It’s still just about possible that the quarantines and travel bans already in place will stop the spread of the virus and 2019-nCoV will ‘burn itself out.’
That’s what happened with SARS. There has been no new SARS cases reported since 2004.
But there’s another, more worrying possibility.
The Wuhan coronavirus could continue to break out in isolated pockets around the world for many years to come.
A team led by Professor Joseph T Wu wrote: “Independent self-sustaining outbreaks in major cities globally could become inevitable.”
Professor Wu and his colleagues believe that, because the travel bans and other precautions were put in place after many people who were carrying the infection had already travelled outside the region, the spread of the virus is effectively unstoppable.
It’s not too soon to talk about version of the Wuhan coronavirus that is always with is, says Dr Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
He said: “We know that respiratory viruses are especially difficult to control, so I think it’s very possible that the current outbreak ends with the virus becoming endemic.”
There are already four such diseases in circulation. Two, while probably hundreds of years old, were first discovered by medical science in the mid-1960s. The other two are newer, first identified in the wake of the 2003-2004 SARS epidemic.
If you find yourself suffering with a severe cold, there’s a good chance that one of those four viruses is to blame.
“For the most part they cause common-cold-type symptoms,” said Richard Webby, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds
“Maybe that is the most likely end scenario if this thing [coronavirus] becomes entrenched.”
He continued: “We’ll put up with a couple of years of heightened activity before settling down to something like the other four coronaviruses.”
His relaxed tone is deceptive: viruses of this type have been responsible for up to 60,000 deaths a year 2010 in the US alone.
It’s unclear how many people the Wuhan coronavirus will kill in the long term, but its ability to remain contagious without causing any detectable symptoms means it may well have spread too far to ever be completely defeated.