Herd immunity is unlikely to be achieved in 2021 for COVID-19
“Responding to COVID-19 is like conducting a train while laying the tracks. Every day we learn new things about the virus, the vaccines, and how they interact with the human body. But there is also a lot that we know and that we have learnt so far.”
Asymptomatic transmission post-vaccination, along with a global rollout of at least three years, mean social distancing measures and masks will remain in 2021.
The UK’s vaccine rollout commenced in December 2020. In the UK we are prioritising high-risk vulnerabilities like those being treated for HIV and cancer, then nursing homes, NHS, essential workers and the general public.
At a global level, the geopolitical landscape is already complex, and the logistics of rolling out a worldwide vaccine programme are intricate.
Herd immunity can be a misleading term
Herd immunity is a term widely used, but it can be misleading because this state is rarely achieved. The last time a virus was eradicated was smallpox. This took years to complete and the door-to-door vaccination of around 500 million houses in India. It was a completely different scenario to what we’re dealing with now, and as a result – herd immunity is unlikely to be achieved in 2021 for COVID-19.
Receiving the vaccine is not the silver bullet to normality
It’s important to make the distinction between sterilising and non-sterilising vaccines. With a sterilising vaccine – the patient has a jab, and they are immune, they won’t develop the disease. However, all current COVID-19 vaccines are non-sterilising. This means when someone has the two doses of the vaccine, they develop antibodies and activate T-cells, and when they encounter COVID-19, they may still become infected but will be asymptomatic.
The salient point is that this person might still have the virus in their nose and oropharynx replicating. If they sneeze, then they can still potentially transmit the virus. This has important and perhaps under-discussed consequences: They still have to wear a mask. They still have to socially distance.
The vaccine is just one of our lines of defence against the virus, and no vaccine is expected to provide enough protection to stop COVID-19 from spreading between people altogether. Whilst the vaccine’s rapid development and distribution is good news for the world – we must recognise that no single intervention with stop the spread.
The role of corporate organisations
Our attitude to the vaccine will have a major role to play in its distribution and efficacy. Whilst initial data shows mild side effects of the vaccine – pain in the arm, slight headache – there is a risk that individuals do not return for their second dose if they had a minor adverse effect to their first dose. This is an important consideration for messaging and positioning of the vaccine – and there is a key role for corporates employers.
From a business perspective, we can influence this messaging in our internal communications and company approach. In the UK, whilst the vaccines are currently under lock and key and for government-procured and arranged distribution – companies should consider providing vaccinations as soon as the vaccine is available to the private sector.