The global rollout of vaccine programs is widely accepted as the most promising armory in the fight against COVID-19. However, experts fear that the ‘vaccine effect’ could lead to worryingly high and persistent infection rates which could potentially outweigh the positive effects achieved by mass vaccination.
The vaccine effect can broadly be described as a shift in behavior to a more relaxed approach to social distancing, handwashing and face coverings. This behavior could be displayed by those who have received the vaccine but it could also manifest in those who have not had the vaccine, but following successful vaccination of the most vulnerable groups falsely believe that that the danger has now passed.
The trouble with this approach is threefold; first, it takes the vulnerable a few weeks for the body to create the necessary antibody response that will ensure their body can fight off COVID-19 if faced with the virus. Secondly, dropping your guard when it comes to social distancing and hygiene practices means that even more people will become infected than would have under normal restrictions. The knock on effect of an increase in people becoming infected is that more people will become seriously ill and require hospitalization, placing sustained pressure on already stretched medical services. Thirdly and most importantly, it is important to realize that vaccines don’t work for every single person; so if it has a 9/10 success rate this means 1/10 vulnerable people will still be likely to suffer from COVID-19 even if they’ve had the vaccine. The reality is that for the most vulnerable to be protected, transmission needs to be brought right down across all groups in society, everywhere. Until that point, the risks of infection remain high. From what we know already of the vaccine rollout programs currently taking place, it could be some time before this level of protection is achieved on a global scale.
In a recent article for the BBC, Prof David Salisbury, a former director of immunization at the UK Department of Health and associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank said, ‘If you just protect the vulnerable, you will stop deaths that are happening in the vulnerable and you will reduce the burden of hospital cases, but it won’t stop transmission. This is a global pandemic, this isn’t a national epidemic, so you’ve got to stop the virus everywhere and, until you do, nowhere remains safe.’
Essentially this means that for the time being, we need to continue to undertake the same practices and behaviors as we did before an approved vaccine was in place. The trouble is, many people are facing lockdown ‘fatigue’ having had to follow the rules for so long. Following the announcement of a third national lockdown, there have been widespread concerns that the general public are not adhering to the rules quite as effectively as during the first major lockdown back in March 2020. Statistics revealed Apple based on analysis of map direction requests revealed that driving levels were down by 40% during the latest lockdown in comparison to 70% during the first lockdown. Public transport was down by 70% during the latest lockdown, compared to 85% back in March 2020. In addition, many more people remain in work this time around as businesses have developed more robust and pandemic-compliant ways to continue trading. Infact, in some schools in the UK, attendance during the third lockdown is as high as 50% despite nationwide closures except for vulnerable children and those of key workers.
The latest advice given by health officials is to ‘act like you have the virus’ which means take every precaution to minimize contact with others, maintain hand washing protocol, keep your distance when out and continue to wear face masks in close contact situations. The new UK and South African variants are reported to be up to 70% more infectious even in outdoor settings and it has recently been revealed that two home-grown variants have now been found in the US too, These variants are not believed to have originated elsewhere and although one is almost identical to the UK variant, scientists believe it evolved completely separately. In an article by the Daily Mail newspaper, Dr. Peter Mohler, chief scientific officer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center said, ‘These new strains ‘didn’t arrive on a plane or a boat. These are spontaneous or natural mutations that happened over the last six to eight weeks.’
What is clear is that despite the hope and positivity that the vaccines bring to the pandemic battle, they are certainly not a free pass to continue living without restrictions and due care for others in the community. For the next few months at least, it is absolutely vital that the public do not rest on their laurels, but maintain safe practices to prevent the second wave of the pandemic from soaring out of control.