Herd immunity not possible this year, despite COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, say experts

The roll-out of coronavirus vaccines in many countries will not provide herd immunity from the global pandemic this year, several health experts said onMonday, citing limited access for poor countries, community trust problems and potential virus mutations.

“We won’t get back to normal quickly,” Dale Fisher, chairman of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Outbreak Alert and Response Network, told the Reuters Next conference.

“We know we need to get to herd immunity and we need that in a majority of countries, so we are not going to see that in 2021,” Fisher said. “There might be some countries that might achieve it but even then that will not create ‘normal’ especially in terms of border controls.”

That was a best-case scenario, based on current knowledge of the vaccines being rolled out, Fisher said.

Herd immunity refers to a situation where enough people in a population have immunity to an infection to be able to effectively stop that disease from spreading.

Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, said a dangerous over-reliance on the coming vaccines by some governments meant herd immunity could not be achieved in the near term.

“The Indonesian government thinks that vaccine is the best solution for controlling the pandemic, and they forget that surveillance like testing … communications, to educate public to practice low risk behavior, is also important because the vaccine itself needs time to cover most of the people who need it,” said Riono, who was also speaking at the Reuters Next conference.

Wealthy nations at front of queue

More than 90 million people are reported to have been infected by the novel coronavirus globally and about 1.9 million have died from the disease since it first emerged in China in December 2019, according to a Reuters tally.

Several countries including the United States, Singapore, Britain and a number of European Union countries have already begun rolling out vaccines such as those developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech, and by Moderna Inc and AstraZeneca Plc/Oxford University. Indonesia and India plan to start mass inoculations later this week.

Wealthier nations have been at the front of the queue for vaccine deliveries, prompting the WHO to warn there is a “clear problem” that low- and middle-income countries are not yet receiving supplies.

Irma Hidayana, the Indonesia-based co-founder of LaporCOVID-19, an independent coronavirus data initiative, said public trust in vaccines could have an impact on the roll-out.

Fisher said the ability of the virus to mutate further was still unknown, as was a possible amplification effect from the vaccines.

State Bank of Pakistan Governor Reza Baqir acknowledged that the roll-out of vaccines in his country was a “logistical Challenge.”

Pakistan, a country of about 220 million people, has so far ordered 1.2 million vaccine doses from China’s Sinopharm.

However, he said it was better placed than a year ago, despite tackling a second wave of infections.

“We are prepared for the challenges that may come about. We are already in the middle of COVID without any vaccine and once the vaccine comes, it will only makes this better,” Baqir told Reuters Next.

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