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Consider the third paragraph of "What happens if a coronavirus vaccine is never developed? It has happened before" (emphasis mine):

Instead of wiping out Covid-19, societies may instead learn to live with it. Cities would slowly open and some freedoms will be returned, but on a short leash, if experts' recommendations are followed. Testing and physical tracing will become part of our lives in the short term, but in many countries, an abrupt instruction to self-isolate could come at any time. Treatments may be developed -- but outbreaks of the disease could still occur each year, and the global death toll would continue to tick upwards.

Does the first may suggest anything like maybe will (as in it may rain tonight) and the second may and the two coulds suggest maybe would (as in conditional maybe sentences)?

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The first "may" suggests a possibility, just like your sentence "It may rain tonight."

Instead of wiping out COVID-19, it is possible that societies learn to live with it...

Instead of wiping out COVID-19, there is a possibility that societies learn to live with it...

The second "may" seems to me to suggest contingency. It suggests possibility, but that possibility is diminished compared to the possibility of what comes after. The sentence is targeting people who think that if a treatment for COVID-19 is developed, that means that the disease will go away. The article argues that there is a possibility that the disease could still come back, whether there is a treatment or not. This sentence essentially means

It is possible/likely that a treatment will be developed, but it is also possible/likely that outbreaks of the disease will still occur...

Notice that the sentence wants you to focus on the idea that "outbreaks will still occur," as opposed to "a treatment will be developed".

In terms of the word "could", in both cases it suggests possibility. The whole paragraph is one giant "possibility fest," if you will.

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  • You say: The first "may" suggests a possibility, just like your sentence "It may rain tonight." 1) Does the two "could"s in the passage suggest the same meaning as the first "may"(as in "it may/could rain tonight")? 2) Could we replace "may" and "could", wherever they appear in the passage, with "can"? – Mr. X May 17 '20 at 18:26
  • @Mr.X 1) Yes: to me, the meaning is the same. 2) No: if you replaced may with can, it would change the meaning of the sentence, and you can't replace could with can because could is conditional and can is not. – Kman3 May 19 '20 at 18:10

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