COVID-19: The pandemic could be here for two more years - expert

While New Zealand prepares for what we hope will be a COVID-free summer, much of the northern hemisphere is in the grips of an autumn surge of coronavirus. 

Just about every single country in Europe is experiencing a second wave that's far greater than the first, while in the US, a third wave is making its deadly mark. 

New modelling released this week predicts by the end of February, more than half a million Americans will have died - but if everyone wore masks, almost 130,000 of those lives could be saved. 

Complacency around COVID-19 in the US and Europe over summer means they're now heading into a deadly winter. 

"The numbers are still rising quite frighteningly," Auckland University Professor Shaun Hendy said. 

"They're genuinely facing a crisis this winter."

Europe's experiencing a second wave that's so fierce some countries are seeing daily case numbers that are six times higher than those in the first wave. 

The UK, Italy and Spain were some of the worst-hit nations during the March-April peak and while they're currently seeing record numbers, it's France that's in the most danger this time around. 

This graph from Johns Hopkins University shows France's daily case numbers since the virus entered the country in March. On their worst day during that period, France recorded roughly 26,000 cases. In the last week of October, they're averaging 50,000 a day. 

French President Emmanuel Macron has implemented a four-week lockdown, saying without it the country could see 400,000 extra deaths in the coming months.

"Because they haven't gone as aggressively as we did, they've just left themselves in a position where they've been exposed to this second wave with winter coming," said Prof Hendy. 

He told Newshub we can expect to see the death toll in countries like France spike in the next three to four weeks, as cases continue to rise. 

"They haven't got herd immunity, they've still got a long way to get there and so we could see multiple waves through the winter."

The US is already well into a third, more aggressive wave. The country's had more than 8.8 million cases and daily infections are rising like never before. Last week they recorded their highest ever number two days in a row - 83,000 cases. 

But it's the death toll that's most alarming. The US currently makes up about a fifth of the world's total COVID-19 deaths, and that's about to get much worse. 

"Their deaths could increase from 220,000 to half a million within the next four months," says epidemiologist Michael Baker. 

Vaccine trials are underway in labs around the world, with one expected to become available as early as March - though it's still unclear how it will work and how effective it will be.

"The question will always be, how long does the protection last and does it work in all age groups?" said Prof Baker. 

"Once we have that essential information we can start to plan a vaccination strategy around that."