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Achieving herd immunity will require testing, data, a vaccine, and public support.
Through May 2020, more than 100,000 deaths in the United States were attributed to COVID-19; there were more than 350,000 deaths globally. Amid the swirl of news and developments in the past three months, a great deal of information-and misinformation-has circulated the disease and options to combat it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new concepts and terminology to the public and highlighted the need for refresher courses on good hygiene practices. Well-established public health practices, such as staying home if you were sick and washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, had to be driven home through public education programs.
The other practices, which may be perceived as infringing on personal choice, were met with more resistance and less compliance. Demonstrators have protested the closure of public spaces and businesses. Some people do not understand-or are not adhering to-the concept of social distancing. And, the recommendation to wear a facemask in public to control the spread of the virus has become a political flashpoint.
Public health officials and healthcare providers have had a difficult task communicating about and getting the public to adhere to practices to help control the spread of the virus. The more complex a topic is the more difficult it can be to gain public acceptance and adherence.
Effective vaccines and therapies are seen as a pathway to return to life as it was before the pandemic. In the past three months, many “promising” therapies and vaccines were heralded in press announcements, often with limited supporting data.
Operation Warp Speed-the name of the Trump Administration’s program to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics-announced lofty goals of producing hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine by the end of 2020.
Many experts do not believe that an effective, approved vaccine that provides at least some protection will be available in less than one year. And, concern that the rush to get a vaccine to market will compromise safety may work against efforts to build herd immunity among the population.
Herd or community immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of the population is immune to a virus because enough people recovered from the illness or were vaccinated. Absent a vaccine, most nations went into lockdown. Sweden’s approach was to build herd immunity among its younger, less at-risk population, while leaving most businesses and public spaces open. As of late May, the nation’s immunity rate was expected to be well below projections, while the death rate per capita was higher than the US and significantly higher than surrounding countries (1).
Epidemiologists estimate that 70% or more of the population must be immune to the novel coronavirus to achieve herd immunity. The portion of the US population that has immunity is unknown due to inaccurate testing and reporting (2).
The Centers for Disease Control reports that less than half of the adults in the US get an annual influenza vaccine (3), an indication that the entire population may not line up voluntarily to get vaccinated. Achieving herd immunity will require health officials to inform and educate a wary and confused public of the science-based merits of a vaccine, a more difficult task than getting people to wash their hands.
1. H.J. Mai, “Stockholm Won’t Reach Herd Immunity in May, Sweden’s Chief Epidemiologist Says,” NPR.org, May 25, 2020.
2. G. D’Souza and D. Dowdy, “What is Herd Immunity and How Can We Achieve It With COVID-19?,” John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, April 19, 2020.
3. CDC, Vaccination Coverage Among Adults in the United States, National Health Interview Survey, 2017, www.cdc.gov, accessed May 28, 2020.
Vol. 33, No. 6
When referring to this article, please cite it as R. Peters, " Are We All In This Together?" BioPharm International 33 (6) 2020.