COVID-19. The disease has turned our world upside down, forcing us to take dramatic measures to help stem the spread of the virus. Now, after countless months navigating lockdowns, mask-wearing and social distancing, the question everyone wants to know the answer to is: what exactly will it take to end this pandemic?
Control of this epidemic is going to have to rely on technology, and the technology is almost certainly going to have to be a vaccine.
Aside from public health measures like mask wearing, washing your hands and social distancing, by now it's crystal clear that a vaccine will be pivotal in really slowing down this pandemic juggernaut and achieving the ultimate goal of 'herd immunity'.
In order to achieve herd immunity, we need to achieve a level of immunity in excess probably of 70% at the population level. Which is why researchers from all over the globe have been fast-tracking COVID-19 vaccine development at an unprecedented rate.
But while it's truly incredible that we'll probably have an effective new vaccine in record time, the reality is it's only the first step toward achieving herd immunity. There are other public health obstacles we'll to overcome and right now one of the biggest ... is skepticism.
This is the part that really becomes challenging. There's a lot of concerns that these vaccines are being tested so rapidly. Lois Privor-Dumm, the senior advisor for policy advocacy and communication at the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Lois is talking about the growing percentage of the U.S. population that has voiced concerns about taking a COVID-19 vaccine with many worried about potential side effects and how effective it would ultimately be. One poll from September 2020 found that only 51 percent were likely to get a vaccine if it was available. And that low number is a big problem, because in order to slow the pandemic we need in excess of 70% of the population to achieve a level of immunity. So what do we do?
It's natural that people have these questions and have these concerns. And it's also important that we address them transparently, talk about what we do know, as well as what we don't know because as soon as we just say that “Oh, don't worry about it, these vaccines are safe,” there's going to be a certain number of people that just push back.
And skepticism isn’t the only obstacle we'll have to overcome once we have a vaccine in order to stop the pandemic. After you’ve proven to the population that a vaccine is safe to take, there are still a number of practical hurdles, like distribution and accessibility, that need to be figured out.
To get it to the people, you have to create these incredible supply chains. Then you’ve got to find the venues to vaccinate people, you got to find the people to do the vaccination, you got to get the people there. And you got to get them there in a way that they're not going to transmit the virus to each other.
That’s not to mention that achieving full immunity from COVID-19, might not be just as simple as getting a single shot. Experts have already said that any vaccine that gets approved for public use will most likely need to be administered in two doses at separate times to ensure full immunity.
So, you're going to have to keep track of who got the first dose, who got the second dose and as much as we dislike the idea of an immunity passport, meaning having something that says you're immune. I think that for the vaccines we may end up at that level.
While all this seems like an uphill battle, the good news is that we’ve tried — and succeeded — at doing this before. Take the smallpox vaccination campaign, for example.
It's just a huge success story, but it's one that I think we can't underestimate how difficult it was and how much coordination really was needed.
Like COVID-19, the campaign to stop smallpox definitely had its setbacks, including lack of funding and wavering commitments from countries around the world, among other issues, but ultimately it prevailed, thanks to some smart immunization and public health strategies.
What they did was that they quickly identified cases and then fortunately, they were able to develop a vaccine and develop what was called a ring, essentially around the small group of people that were in contact with those people that had smallpox. So that way it didn't have a chance to spread further. What's really important here is it was a large effort that required commitment from a lot of different countries, a lot of different people, required commitment from the public to be vaccinated.
And while smallpox is very different from COVID-19, we can still draw important lessons from the way we handled pandemics in the past. The reality is: in order to make headway against a disease as unrelenting as COVID-19, it is going to take a sustained and coordinated effort from everyone.
Trust is ultimately what we really need to maintain because it's not just trust for the COVID-19 vaccine, but for all of the other vaccines that are out there. We need to ensure that we maintain trust in the system going forward, because if we can do this well, then we can protect our population much more effectively and that would be a really positive thing.