Could Vaccines Really Solve the Pandemic?

Illustrated by Elena Bosak

With the COVID-19 pandemic stretching into its tenth month this October, many people living in isolation are yearning for the chance to live life normally again. Current treatments for this disease span from simply staying at home and hoping people will recover naturally, to prevention via supplements, to direct treatment in hospitals through ventilators [1, 2]. For prevention treatments, there are still ongoing debates about whether or not they are truly useful. Amidst all the contradictory information, vaccines have become the light at the end of the tunnel for many. With this in mind, nations, laboratories, universities and many more have been scrambling to be the first to develop a working vaccine. According to BBC, currently, “240 vaccines are in early development, with 40 in clinical trials and nine already in the final stage of testing on thousands of people” [3]. 

Yet, looking beyond the promise of a normal life through vaccination, many questions still remain. Just how useful will vaccines be to stop the progression of the pandemic? Will these injections be accessible? What percent of the world’s population needs to be vaccinated before we are “safe” again? How much longer must we wait? In the best-case scenario, “a vaccine is likely to become widely available by mid-2021” [4].

However, as The New York Times reports, 

It’s tempting to look at the first vaccine as President Trump does: an on-off switch that will bring back life as we know it. ‘As soon as it’s given the go-ahead, we will get it out, defeat the virus,’ he said at a September news conference. But vaccine experts say we should prepare instead for a perplexing, frustrating year” [5]. 

Social and scientific factors can complicate the situation in a multitude of ways, preventing vaccines from having the clean-cut effect they would otherwise be expected to have.

Under normal circumstances, vaccine development consists of three phases, which can take “a decade or more after the research has begun” before the vaccine can be commercially manufactured. However, this process has been sped up due to the emergent situation this year. The World Health Organization (WHO) has started the “Solidarity Vaccines Trial” through which “several vaccines would be given at random to one large group of volunteers, while a smaller group would receive a placebo. All of the vaccines would be tested against the same placebo group, and all of the volunteers would be living in the same circumstances” [6]. This trial simultaneously facilitates the comparison of these vaccines with each other as well as the placebo. Unfortunately, there are limitations to the speed of this study: just the process of starting this trial has already taken nine months, and approximately “200,000 volunteers” must still be recruited before this trial can be completed [7].  

Vaccines that first reach the market will also slow down the research process for competitors. Since authorized vaccines have a higher chance of being effective, people might be tempted to buy vaccines that are already on the market and opt-out of clinical trials. It will be difficult for the “vaccines in earlier stages of testing” to “prove that they are better than the newly approved vaccine [since] the difference between two vaccines will be smaller than between a vaccine and a placebo.” As a result, companies will be less incentivized to continue developing their own vaccines [8]. 

Another cause for concern is accessibility. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have created a “preliminary ranking system” that states that “vital medical and national security officials” will be the first to be inoculated, then “other essential workers and those considered at high risk,” such as senior citizens and people with preexisting health conditions [9]. Moreover, since racial minorities, like African Americans, Latinx and indigenous peoples are at least three times as likely to pass away from the coronavirus infection [10],  the CDC has considered also giving them access priority. Unfortunately, Executive of the Association of Immunization Managers Claire Hannan says that she hesitates to do so because “‘giving it to one race initially and not another race’” may be ill-received by the public [11]. Even if all of these high-risk groups have access to the vaccine, 60-70 percent of the world still needs to receive the vaccine, which is about 4.7 -5.5 billion people in order for herd immunity to slow down infection rates [12].

However, accessibility is not the only issue we face when discussing vaccine administration. In August, 69 percent of the public said they would get vaccinated once vaccines become available, while only 58 percent said the same thing this October. This can likely be attributed to the politicization of the vaccine due to the impending election [13]. In the recent vice presidential debate, Senator Harris indicated that “if the doctors tell us that we should take [the vaccine], I’ll be the first in line to take it, absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us that I should…take it, I’m not taking it.” Her view can encourage the people who support her to refrain from taking the vaccine if the latter situation she describes happens. Thus, such adherence to politics rather than science may prevent herd immunity from being achieved [14]. 

Even after these vaccines have been administered to those who want them, it will not mean we can immediately stop wearing masks or end social distancing. Because the clinical trials have only been going on for a few months, the protective durations and efficacies of these vaccines are still largely unknown. Moreover, people who are thought to be safely vaccinated could still catch the virus and unknowingly spread it as an asymptomatic carrier. 

With all of these unknown and uncontrollable factors before and after vaccine administration, definitive statements about the vaccines’ ability to end the pandemic should be put on hold. However, we can still hold onto hope as the combination of social distancing, hand-washing, mask-wearing and vaccines will still greatly mitigate the spread of the virus.

Edited by Sophia Dutton
Illustrated by Elena Bosak

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