Last year on March 12, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. This day changed all of our lives and is still affecting them now one year later. The pandemic has claimed many lives, pushed health care systems to their limit, put a strain on our economy and is putting all of our realities on hold. After one year a lot of people are exhausted and are hoping for an end of the pandemic. Last year everybody hoped for a vaccine and thought the pandemic would end with it. Now there are several vaccines on the market but an ending to this pandemic still seems far away, a lot of countries are still in lockdown and some even have curfews. So the question that everybody wants the answer to is: “when do we get our old life back?”
The key word in a situation like this is “Herd immunity “, this means that a sufficient percentage of the population is immune to a disease, in this case the coronavirus. How high that percentage has to be depends on several factors. The most important factor is the “reproductive number “, this number indicates how many people get infected by a contagious person. The reproductive number of the Corona pandemic lies between 3,3 – 3,8. This means that a sick person will infect three to four other people. However, most governments implemented safety measures and a lockdown to prevent this from happening; therefore, we are talking about the “effective reproductive number “. (The R number goes down.) To make it simple: we will go back to our normal lives when the reproductive number, without the safety measures, is below one. The solution to getting the number below one is immunity. You gain immunity through infection or a vaccination. At the moment (March 2021)there are three vaccines on the market “Biontech/Pfizer”, “Moderna” and “Astrazeneca”. The Biontech/Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA-vaccines and have an effectiveness of 95%. The Astrazeneca vaccine has an effectiveness of circa 70%, and has some harsher side effects. In order for the vaccines to be effective they need to be administered twice, three to four weeks apart. Additionally, some vaccines need to be stored in very low temperatures and are only usable a few hours once they are out of storage. There are some difficulties in distributing the vaccine. Let alone forming a plan for the distribution is very complex because one has to be mindful of the cold chain and has to keep track of all the distribution points, both potential risk factors. Additionally everybody involved in the process needs the same plan and understanding of the logistic distribution so they can plan accordingly. Another challenge is that some people are suspicious of the vaccines and afraid of side effects and long-term effects. However, so far beside the normal side effects that come with vaccinations there were none, nevertheless a residual risk will always remain. All of this sounds rather promising, but a lot of work lies ahead of us. In order to gain herd immunity 60-80% of the world's population needs to be vaccinated. Front-runner country is Israel where almost 50% of the population is vaccinated, followed by the United Arab Emirates. Unfortunately, they are not the norm in most countries, where approximately only 5% of the population is vaccinated so far. Especially poorer countries struggle - not only with the distribution of the vaccine but also with having vaccines in the first place, since a lot of western countries bought most of the available resources. Canada, for example, bought five times the amount they need and the UK three times. The consequence of this is that these deprived countries turn to China and Russia for help. You might be wondering what the issue is with that?
Both of these countries have developed a vaccine, said to be effective and safe. In China a total of three vaccines were developed that are widely tested and used in several countries like Brasil, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia. One of the vaccines “Sinovac” had underwhelming results of 50% effectiveness and raises concern. Some experts suggest that China tries to build favourable relationships with these countries by doing the “vaccine business”. Meanwhile China propagates the European vaccines to be deadly and bad. On the other side there is Russia following a similar path. They launched their vaccine SputnikV, before it was released it had only been tested on 76 people and didn’t finish the trial period. Over fifty countries placed orders for SputnikV including India, Egypt and Hungary. Fortunately, so far scientists have found the vaccine to be very effective and safe, with a 92% effectiveness.
Additionally, more than 150 countries are currently part of the so-called “Covax” federation. This collaboration is meant to ensure the equal distribution of tests, treatments and vaccines. It is also supposed to speed up the process of the development and manufacture of the much-needed supplies.
That doesn’t sound too bad, however, the Coronavirus thwarts our plans yet again because of the upcoming mutations. Some of the new mutations seem to be more contagious, therefore the reproductive number goes up and will cause the percentage of the herd immunity to get higher as well. Fortunately, most of the vaccines show some extend of resistance towards the new mutations. Another dispersion we face is that some infected are mildly contagious and others very, keyword “Super spreader”. Currently a third wave is building up, something that experts already expected. Why a third wave is heading our way is easily explained. First of all, in most countries people who are at high risk of a severe illness will get vaccinated first. This leads to hospitals being less full and less deaths, which is a great relief and accomplishment for everybody. However, the people at high risk were and are not the people spreading the virus. Therefore, nothing changes at first for the rest of the population. Another reason is that politicians are slowly reopening schools, business… leading to more infections. Lastly, with the new and more contagious mutations the virus is spreading faster. These kinds of waves will keep on coming and with them the restrictions and lockdowns if we do not achieve herd immunity.
To get back to the initial question, when will we get our old lives back? We will get our old lives back when enough people are vaccinated. When that is depends on how long the production and distribution of the vaccinations will take, the willingness of people to get vaccinated and the politicians (aka crucial decision makers). Nevertheless, it is quite probable that we will never completely eradicate the coronavirus. It is much more likely that the virus will become endemic, in other words native. This will lead to one either getting infected or getting vaccinated. A second infection in either case will be a lot lighter and come more closely to a common cold or flu. From this, one can conclude that in future mainly children that are new to this world will be infected for the first time. This however is not too worrisome because children have mild to no symptoms at all, or could get vaccinated. This pandemic has tested us all in many ways. It took patience, perseverance, and faith to get through this very unusual and straining year. Through great minds and the responsible and collective behaviour of everybody millions of lives were saved, this is something to hold onto and be proud of. Additionally, we proved to ourselves that as a community we have great strength and future challenges like climate change can be managed together. Unfortunately, we still have some work ahead of us and I am not able to say that this pandemic will be over in two months or even six months. While I was writing this article, I had to rewrite parts, things change so quickly at the moment, one day things are looking up the next they don’t but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
By: Elisa Klaffus