COVID in 2023 and beyond – why virus trends are more difficult to predict three years on

In 2020, we knew very little about the novel virus that was to become known as COVID-19. Now, as we enter 2023, a search of Google Scholar produces around five million results containing the term.

So how will the pandemic be felt in 2023? This question is in some ways impossible to answer, given a number of unknowns. In early 2020 the scientific community was focused on determining key parameters that could be used to make projections as to the severity and extent of the spread of the virus. Now, the complex interplay of COVID variants, vaccination and natural immunity makes that process far more difficult and less predictable.

But this doesn’t mean there’s room for complacency. The proportion of people estimated to be infected has varied over time, but this figure has not fallen below 1.25% (or one in 80 people) in England for the entirety of 2022. COVID is very much still with us, and people are being infected time and time again.

Meanwhile, the number of people self-reporting long COVID symptoms in the UK is around 3.4%, or one in 30 people. And the cumulative risk of acquiring long COVID grows the more times people are reinfected with COVID.

The UK’s health system is under huge pressure, with very high pre-COVID waiting times having been exacerbated during the pandemic.

Why COVID projections have become harder

During the early days of the pandemic, simple models could be used to project the number of COVID cases and the likely effect on the population, including demands for health care.

Relatively few variables were needed to produce the first projections. That was because there was one main variant of COVID, the original strain, to which everyone in the world was susceptible.

But now, those simple assumptions no longer hold. Much of the world’s population is estimated to have had COVID and there are significant differences between individual levels of protection in terms of which vaccines, and how many doses, people have received around the world. In total, 13 billion vaccine doses have been administered – but not equitably.

Modelling also works well when people act in ways that are predictable, whether this is normal, pre-pandemic behaviour, or at times of severe social restrictions. As people adapt to the virus and make their own assessment of risk and benefits of behaviour, modelling becomes more complex.


For the full article by Dr Duncan Robertson visit the Conversation.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 23/01

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2022 QS World University Rankings – the sixth year running – and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2023, 10th in the Guardian University League Table 2023 and 11th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2023.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’, and in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 over 90% of its research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally-excellent’. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.