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Biotechnology and health

Covid hasn’t entirely gone away—here’s where we stand

The coronavirus continues to cause infections, disease and death—and long covid.

Mother admisters a Covid-19 home test to her 4-5 year old son who is grimacing
Getty Images

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We’re well into summer here in the Northern Hemisphere. For a parent of two young children, that means ice creams, water fountains, picnics, and—inevitably—coughs and colds. My eldest told me she was feeling poorly this morning, and the youngest crawled into my bed to cough in my face.

It’s not just kids, of course. My colleague has just come down with covid-19. The onset of symptoms was rapid, and she described it as “like being hit by a freight train.” “How very retro of you,” another colleague commented. Another replied: “This is still a thing?”

As a health reporter who has been covering covid since the early days, I am still asked this question on a fairly regular basis. So this week let’s take a look at exactly where we stand with covid.

It’s worth pointing out that there are still some big, unanswered questions when it comes to covid-19. For a start, we still don’t really know where this particular coronavirus came from. Most scientists believe it must have jumped from an animal host to humans at a market in Wuhan, China. But some maintain that it could have leaked from a lab. My colleague Antonio Regalado has explored the question in his five-part podcast series, Curious Coincidence.

What we do know is that covid-19 spread all around the world in 2020. On January 9 of that year, Chinese authorities determined that a mysterious cluster of pneumonia-like illnesses was caused by a novel coronavirus. The first death was reported days later. Since then, almost 7 million more deaths have been confirmed. The true figure is thought to be higher.

Lockdowns and the use of face masks helped slow the spread of the disease. But even “zero-covid” policies that aimed to keep the virus out of entire countries couldn’t stem the spread. To date, there have been over 767 million confirmed cases.

Vaccines eventually helped us get the virus under control, at least to some degree. As of June 27, over 13.4 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally. These days, the number of reported cases is much, much lower. On July 3, the WHO reported 143,898 weekly cases of covid-19. People are still getting infected, but that’s a massive decline from July 3 last year, when the figure was 6.3 million. 

Some of that difference in numbers may be due to changes in how often people test and the declining availability of free tests around the world. Those of us who are vaccinated can still get infected, but if and when we do, our symptoms should be less severe. That, along with the lack of free tests, mean it’s likely that far fewer people are testing for covid-19 when they start to get sick.

As I was clearing out my home earlier this week, I came across a box of covid tests. They’re old now—we’ve had most of them for over two years. About half of them have expired, so they’re no longer reliable. But what should we do with the others?

Reassuringly, older, non-expired tests do still seem to be picking up new variants of the virus (although it’s worth bearing in mind that we don’t know how future variants might evolve). But they’ve never been 100% accurate, and they still aren’t. (Antonio reviewed a few of the tests back in 2021 and had mixed results.)

A study published a couple of days ago found that symptomatic people should really take two tests, 48 hours apart. And people who think they might have been infected but don’t have symptoms should test three times.

A couple of months ago, the WHO declared that covid was no longer a public health emergency of international concern. Which sounds great, until you realize it’s because it is now “an established and ongoing health issue.” Oh, and it’s still a pandemic.

There can still be huge spikes in case numbers, like last winter, when the WHO recorded over 44 million cases on December 19. And while deaths have thankfully declined, they do still happen. The most recent data we have suggests that 497 people died of covid in the week ending July 3. Deaths were much higher in January of this year, with 20,000 to 40,000 every week. Again, those are just the recorded covid deaths. The real numbers are likely to be higher.

Personally, I’m not as worried about covid-19 as I was during the early days of the pandemic. That’s partly because I’m fully vaccinated and have already had covid at least twice. I’m also fortunate enough not to have a condition that makes me vulnerable to severe disease.

But the elephant in the room is long covid—another hotly contested topic. (There has been a particularly intense debate surrounding long covid in children, as I covered here.) The condition continues to cause lasting pain and suffering to an unknown but significant number of people. Scientists believe it’s possible to develop the condition after any infection with the coronavirus.

So I’m keeping my unexpired tests for now, just in case.

Read more from Tech Review's archive

mRNA vaccines helped us through the pandemic. But they could also help defend against many other infectious diseases, offer universal protection against flu, and even treat cancer, as I covered in a piece exploring what’s next for this technology.

Some are taking a different approach: attempting to create a universal, nanoparticle-based covid vaccine that protects against multiple variants, as Adam Piore wrote last year.

Shi Zhengli is the scientist at the center of the lab leak controversy, having spent years at the Wuhan Institute of Virology researching coronaviruses that live in bats. Jane Qiu covered her story in this long read.

We can track the spread of new coronavirus variants in wastewater, as Antonio reported in 2019.

Scientists are working on drugs that stave off the effects of aging. And they’ve been testing those drugs as treatments for covid-19, as I reported last year.

From around the web

Mealworm burgers? Fermented fungi facon? Here are seven sources of protein that don’t involve farming animals. (Nature

Incidentally, my colleague Casey Crownhart recently explored the environmental impact of cultured meat. Unsurprisingly, it’s not straightforward. (MIT Technology Review)

There’s more evidence to show that brain stimulation can improve memory in people with brain injuries. (Brain Stimulation) I covered the use of a “memory prosthesis” in people with brain damage here, last year.

Injections of a single protein appear to have improved the cognitive function of older monkeys. Scientists hope it might rejuvenate the brains of old people, too. (Wired)

Nine months before the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Texas enacted a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Nearly 10,000 extra births followed. (The Cut)

Deep Dive

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Faults in a certain part of the immune system might be at the root of some long covid cases, new research suggests.

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Sickle-cell disease is the first illness to be beaten by CRISPR, but the new treatment comes with an expected price tag of $2 to $3 million.

This baby with a head camera helped teach an AI how kids learn language

A neural network trained on the experiences of a single young child managed to learn one of the core components of language: how to match words to the objects they represent.

We’ve never understood how hunger works. That might be about to change.

Scientists have spent decades trying to unravel the intricate mysteries of the human appetite. Are they on the verge of finally determining how this basic drive functions?

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