When will the coronavirus pandemic be over? That's the question that nearly everyone in the world would like answered. It's been over half a year since the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. Those months have been surreal for many people. And they're ready for life to return to normal.

Billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates thinks that he might have a pretty good idea of when the pandemic will end. And he suspects he might know when things will begin returning to normal in the U.S.

An hourglass next to a surgical mask on top of a small stack of money

Image source: Getty Images.

Bill Gates' prediction

In an interview with Fox News Sunday, Gates told host Chris Wallace that he's "optimistic this [the pandemic] won't last indefinitely." So when does he predict it will be over? Gates said that "the end of the pandemic, best case, is probably 2022."

That timing might not sound very appealing to weary Americans; 2022 still seems like a long way off. And Gates' reference to that being a "best case" probably won't give many people a warm-and-fuzzy feeling, either.

The billionaire did have a more positive prediction, though. He said that he thinks that some coronavirus vaccines will win approvals by early 2021. Assuming this happens, Gates anticipates that "by next summer the U.S. will be starting to go back to normal. And by the end of the year, our activities can be fairly normal."

However, there was an important caveat in Gates' timeline. He said that the key to ending the pandemic is for the U.S. to help developing countries obtain COVID-19 vaccines. Unless coronavirus outbreaks are contained throughout the world, Gates is concerned that the pandemic could return to the U.S.

Will he be proven right?

There are good reasons to believe that Gates' projected timeline for coronavirus vaccine approvals is on target. Three COVID-19 vaccine candidates are in active late-stage testing; AstraZeneca is still awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration to resume its late-stage U.S. study, after pausing the trial due to a severe adverse reaction from a participant in a U.K. clinical trial.

Two of the drugmakers with late-stage COVID-19 vaccine candidates -- Pfizer and Moderna -- expect to report preliminary results in the fourth quarter of 2020. That could pave the way for either or both companies to obtain an FDA emergency use authorization (EUA) by early next year, and potentially by the end of this year.

It will take several months after the first coronavirus vaccines receive EUAs before most Americans will have an opportunity to be vaccinated. However, Gates' take that life in the U.S. could begin to return to normal in the summer of 2021 seems to be realistic.

But will the pandemic really continue into 2022? Probably so, at least in other parts of the world. Like it or not, many of the initial supplies of COVID-19 vaccines will go to wealthier countries that have already locked in supply agreements with the leaders in the coronavirus vaccine race.

Stocks to buy in the meantime

With another year or more of disruptions to normal life expected for Americans, which stocks should investors buy in the meantime? There are two categories that look like smart picks.

First, consider buying shares of companies that are key to fighting the coronavirus. Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT) stands out as a great example. The company is a leader in COVID-19 testing, with six tests winning FDA EUAs. Abbott's BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card test, especially, could be a game-changer: It's fast, cheap, and simple.

These COVID-19 tests aren't the only reason to like Abbott, though. The company has several other major growth drivers, notably including its Freestyle Libre 2 continuous glucose monitoring system. Abbott is also a Dividend Aristocrat, with 48 consecutive years of dividend increases.

Second, check out the stocks of companies that will benefit from the effects of a prolonged pandemic. Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) ranks as an obvious choice on this front. Consumers are shopping more online than ever before as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak; Amazon, the global leader in e-commerce, has seen its business boom.

Amazon's cloud business also continues to enjoy solid momentum. The company is expanding its grocery focus. It's looking to reduce shipping costs for its e-commerce business by using drones to deliver packages.

Both Abbott and Amazon are poised to perform well for as long as the pandemic lasts. And both are in good shape to reward investors in the years after the pandemic is over, too.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.