Coronavirus vaccine will not change world right away

In the public imagination, the arrival of a coronavirus vaccine looms large: It’s the neat Hollywood ending to the grim and agonizing uncertainty of everyday life in a pandemic.

But public health experts are discussing among themselves a new worry: that hopes for a vaccine may be soaring too high. The confident depiction by politicians and companies that a vaccine is imminent and inevitable may give people unrealistic beliefs about how soon the world can return to normal and could lead to resistance to simple strategies that can tamp down transmission and save lives in the short term.

Two coronavirus vaccines entered the final stages of human testing last week, a scientific speed record that prompted top government health officials to utter words such as “historic” and “astounding.” Pharmaceutical executives predicted to Congress in July that vaccines might be available as soon as October, or before the end of the year.

As the plotline advances, so do expectations: If people can just muddle through a few more months, the vaccine will land, the pandemic will end and everyone can throw their masks away. But best-case scenarios have not materialized throughout the pandemic, and experts – who believe wholeheartedly in the power of vaccines – foresee a long path ahead.

“It seems, to me, unlikely that a vaccine is an off-switch or a reset button where we will go back to pre-pandemic times,” said Yonatan Grad, an assistant professor of infectious diseases and immunology at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Or, as Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen puts it, “It’s not like we’re going to land in Oz.”

The declaration that a vaccine has been shown safe and effective will be a beginning, not the end. Deploying the vaccine to people in the United States and around the world will test and strain distribution networks, the supply chain, public trust and global cooperation. It will take months or, more likely, years to reach enough people to make the world safe.

For those who do get a vaccine as soon as shots become available, protection won’t be immediate – it takes weeks for the immune system to call up full platoons of disease-fighting antibodies. And many vaccine technologies will require a second shot weeks after the first to raise immune defenses.

Immunity could be short-lived or partial, requiring repeated boosters that strain the vaccine supply or require people to keep social distancing and wearing masks even after they’ve received their shots. And if a vaccine works less well for some groups of people, if swaths of the population are reluctant to get a vaccine or if there isn’t enough to go around, some people will still get sick even after scientists declare victory on a vaccine – which could help foster a false impression that it does not work.

A proven vaccine will profoundly change the relationship the world has with the novel coronavirus and is how many experts believe the pandemic will end. In popular conception, a vaccine is regarded as a silver bullet. But the truth – especially with the earliest vaccines – probably will be far more nuanced. Public health experts fear that could lead to disappointment and erode the already delicate trust essential to making the effort to vanquish the virus succeed.

The drive to develop vaccines is frequently characterized as a race, with one country or company in the lead. The race metaphor suggests that what matters is who reaches the finish line first. But first across the line is not necessarily the best – and it almost certainly isn’t the end of the race, which could go on for years.

Source: Seattle Times