Other experts said this scenario was not just plausible but likely.
“The overall intellectual construct of the paper I fully agree with,” said Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego.
If the vaccines prevent people from transmitting the virus, “then it becomes a lot more like the measles scenario, where you vaccinate everybody, including kids, and you really don’t see the virus infecting people anymore,” Dr. Crotty said.
It is more plausible that the vaccines will prevent illness — but not necessarily infection and transmission, he added. And that means the coronavirus will continue to circulate.
“It’s unlikely that the vaccines we have right now are going to provide sterilizing immunity,” the kind needed to prevent infection, said Jennifer Gommerman, an immunologist at the University of Toronto.
Natural infection with the coronavirus produces a strong immune response in the nose and throat. But with the current vaccines, Dr. Gommerman said, “you’re not getting a natural immune response in the actual upper respiratory tract, you’re getting an injection in the arm.” That raises the likelihood that infections will still occur, even after vaccination.
Ultimately, Dr. Lavine’s model rests on the assumption that the new coronavirus is similar to the common cold coronaviruses. But that assumption may not hold up, cautioned Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
“Other coronavirus infections may or may not be applicable, because we haven’t seen what those coronaviruses can do to an older, naïve person,” Dr. Lipsitch said. (Naïve refers to an adult whose immune system has not been exposed to the virus.)