Early in the pandemic, when vaccines for the coronavirus were still just a glimmer on the horizon, the term “herd immunity” came to signify the endgame: the point when enough Americans would be protected from the virus so we could be rid of the pathogen and reclaim our lives.
Now, more than half of adults in the United States have been inoculated with at least one dose of a vaccine. But daily vaccination rates are slipping, and there is widespread consensus among scientists and public health experts that the herd immunity threshold is not attainable — at least not in the foreseeable future, and perhaps not ever.
Instead, they are coming to the conclusion that rather than making a long-promised exit, the virus will most likely become a manageable threat that will continue to circulate in the United States for years to come, still causing hospitalizations and deaths but in much smaller numbers.
How much smaller is uncertain and depends in part on how much of the nation, and the world, becomes vaccinated and how the coronavirus evolves. It is already clear, however, that the virus is changing too quickly, new variants are spreading too easily and vaccination is proceeding too slowly for herd immunity to be within reach anytime soon.
Continued immunizations, especially for people at highest risk because of age, exposure or health status, will be crucial to limiting the severity of outbreaks, if not their frequency, experts believe.
“The virus is unlikely to go away,” said Rustom Antia, an evolutionary biologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “But we want to do all we can to check that it’s likely to become a mild infection.”
The shift in outlook presents a new challenge for public health authorities. The drive for herd immunity — by the summer, some experts once thought possible — captured the imagination of large segments of the public. To say the goal will not be attained adds another “why bother” to the list of reasons that vaccine skeptics use to avoid being inoculated.
Yet vaccinations remain the key to transforming the virus into a controllable threat, experts said.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the Biden administration’s top adviser on Covid-19, acknowledged the shift in experts’ thinking.
“People were getting confused and thinking you’re never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is,” he said.
“That’s why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense,” he added. “I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”
Why reaching the threshold is tough
Once the novel coronavirus began to spread across the globe in early 2020, it became increasingly clear that the only way out of the pandemic would be for so many people to gain immunity — whether through natural infection or vaccination — that the virus would run out of people to infect. The concept of reaching herd immunity became the implicit goal in many countries, including the United States.
Early on, the target herd immunity threshold was estimated to be about 60 to 70 percent of the population. Most experts, including Dr. Fauci, expected that the United States would be able to reach it once vaccines were available.
But as vaccines were developed and distribution ramped up through the winter and into the spring, estimates of the threshold began to rise. That is because the initial calculations were based on the contagiousness of the original version of the virus. The predominant variant now circulating in the United States, called B.1.1.7 and first identified in Britain, is about 60 percent more transmissible.
As a result, experts now calculate the herd immunity threshold to be at least 80 percent. If even more contagious variants develop, or if scientists find that immunized people can still transmit the virus, the calculation will have to be revised upward again.
Polls show that about 30 percent of the U.S. population is still reluctant to be vaccinated. That number is expected to improve but probably not enough. “It is theoretically possible that we could get to about 90 percent vaccination coverage, but not super likely, I would say,” said Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
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