Three Covid-19 Experts Review Their 2020 Predictions and Make New Ones for 2021

Harvard panelists discuss what’s next for the country and the coronavirus

Photo: Joseph Prezioso/Getty Images

On March 6, 2020, a panel convened at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where experts discussed their informed gut feelings about the likely course of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It ended up being the last in-person public event at Harvard, and a few days later, the world was officially experiencing a pandemic.

A year later, on March 5, 2021, the same experts reconvened to look back at 2020 and discuss what their well-informed guts have to say about the rest of 2021. The three panelists were Michael Mina, MD, an epidemiologist at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Helen Branswell, health reporter at STAT; and Juliette Kayyem, former homeland security official with the Obama administration and current faculty chair of the Kennedy School’s homeland security program.

If they could go back in time, the panelists said, one thing they’d change was the early advice on masks. “Any rational person looking at respiratory diseases in the past might have been earlier on the masking aspect,” said Kayyem. Branswell agreed. “Looking back, it’s clear that we all missed a beat there… but we need to remember that at this time last year, you couldn’t buy a mask. If you were going out to buy masks, you were taking masks from hospitals that were already rationing them.”

One thing that surprised them was how effective the vaccines are and how fast the mRNA technology was leveraged to produce the first authorized versions. “I remember back in June, August, thinking we’d be lucky if we achieve 70% efficacy,” Mina recalled. “That’s been very very surprising, not the speed but just how well the technology is working.”

“2021 is looking really good. Hope begets hope.”

Branswell remembered her skepticism when Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicted that there would be a vaccine within 18 months. “I was warning people all year that we need to be prepared for the possibility that these vaccines may fail,” she said, “and boom boom boom, they not only work, they work really well. It’s nothing short of a scientific miracle, and that’s not an oxymoron.”

On the political front, Kayyam said that there “will have to be a full accounting” of what happened at the federal level in this response to “the nation’s first 50-state disaster.” The losses the country has sustained in the pandemic so far “did not have to be this way,” she said, “and it’s just not acceptable for this nation to have endured what it did.”

Branswell said that the fact that former president Donald Trump was vaccinated “behind the scenes, in private” was a “tragedy and a scandal.” In doing so, she said, Trump missed “the opportunity to use his bully pulpit to encourage his supporters, some of whom are quite vaccine skeptical or hesitant.” If he had been photographed during his vaccination, she said, he could have set an example for the people who follow him. “He chose not to do that.”

After looking back, the panelists also discussed what they see ahead. Mina predicted “surges in the fall” and called for preparation for that eventuality now, not later. “We have to know how to respond,” he said. “If they are just cases and not hospitalizations and deaths, do we shut down society again? I feel like it’s Groundhog Day… I was saying last April that we needed to prepare for last fall.” He also predicted that “the summer will feel fairly normal for a lot of people… we will get a near sense of normalcy just in time for fall to hit, and we’ll get hit again with cases.”

Branswell offered a prediction about the indirect effects of the pandemic: “We’re going to be seeing differential cancer rates in the coming decades as the U.S. sees the impacts of putting off cancer screening,” she predicted. “We may see different rates of childhood diseases because kids aren’t being vaccinated on schedule. There will be differences in the world going forward that we’ll be able to measure.” Regarding the virus itself, she said, “Don’t despair. The reality is that we and this virus have to learn to live with one another, and it’s going to be a bumpy road over the next decade or so.”

In last year’s panel, Kayyam recalled, she’d said, “‘2020 is going to suck,’ and I’ve never been more right in my life.” But she described some space for optimism on the anniversary eve of that 2020 panel. The first ray of hope is vaccination, she said. “Vaccinations beget vaccinations,” she said, pointing to polls showing declines in vaccine hesitancy. Her prediction for 2021 is a little different from her prophecy for 2020. “Permission to hope,” she said. “2021 is looking really good. Hope begets hope.”

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Emily Willingham

Emily Willingham

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Journalist, author, Texan, biologist. I write All About Us (we=us), All About Adolescence (our longest growth stage), & All About Aging (we’re all doing it).