1,000,000 deaths: How and when will we defeat COVID-19?

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The World Health Organisation has confirmed that the official COVID-19 death toll has surpassed one million. The pandemic continues to spread throughout the world, and many countries are experiencing second waves of the virus.

More and more vaccine candidates are entering phase three of trials, and it seems that a return to normalcy may be around the corner. Nevertheless, we should not let this optimism lead us to abandon sensible containment strategies and undermine the progress we have made so far. So, how does a pandemic come to an end?

According to experts, pandemics can come to an end in two ways: social and medical. In terms of social change, people may grow tired of lockdown restrictions and choose to return to normalcy, whether they are allowed to or not.

In Sweden, a more lenient containment strategy has led to many retaining some sense of normalcy, but the UK government has clearly spelled out their concerns over this scenario, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson warning that refusing to follow new lockdown rules will have serious consequences.

Confusion regarding the severity of COVID-19 could also contribute to a more defiant atmosphere—US President Donald Trump has recently been criticised for admitting that he publicly downplayed the virus.

On the other hand, some argue that, eventually, the economic damage from lockdown will become irrevocable as the unemployment rate remains high and industries continue to collapse. According to the OEDC, the UK economy was hit the worst in the world from April to June. However, of course, it would be undesirable for an uncontrolled social end of the pandemic to occur before it could be medically contained and the death toll curbed.

Ideally, herd immunity is what will signal the end of lockdown measures. Herd immunity occurs when enough people become immune to a disease to severely reduce the likelihood of transmission. Instead of simply letting the disease run through the population, vaccination will be key to establishing herd immunity.

Historically, vaccination efforts have majorly reduced numbers of infections from diseases such as polio, tetanus, and seasonal flu, while eradicating smallpox altogether. It is unlikely that COVID-19 will be fully eradicated any time soon, but with an effective vaccine, we can reduce its spread to such an extent that normal life can resume with little risk.

An unprecedented amount of money has been directed towards COVID-19 vaccine research, with a single EU teleconference managing to raise $8 billion from various world leaders. However, there will be significant obstacles to overcome before vaccination can end this pandemic.

“we can’t allow politics to interfere with the vaccine in any way” 

Most importantly, the vaccine must work. Recently, there have been worries that AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford are not being transparent with their reasons for pausing trials amid reports of adverse side effects.

Furthermore, a new brand of vaccine politics could spell trouble. President Trump has publicly disagreed with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr Robert R. Redfield over when the general American public can expect a vaccine. While Redfield has suggested the second or third quarter of next year, Trump has said April and even hinted that Americans could expect a breakthrough before the presidential election in November.

This has led some to speculate that Trump aims to fast-track work on a vaccine to improve his election chances, with rival Joe Biden arguing that “we can’t allow politics to interfere with the vaccine in any way” and acknowledging that a vaccine will also take months to distribute.

China and Russia are bypassing traditional testing conventions in order to distribute a vaccine as fast as possible, with Russia’s vaccine candidate, known as Sputnik V, given regulatory approval in August.

Formalised testing procedures for vaccine candidates exist for good reasons. If individuals take a rushed, ineffective, vaccine and believe themselves to be immune, abandoning social distancing protocols, the virus could spread further. Hence, experts are recommending that vaccine candidates show at least 30-50% effectiveness before they are officially rolled out.

Similarly, if the announcement of an effective vaccine is overly sensationalised, it could result in a hasty abandonment of lockdown measures while the vaccine will need more time to be distributed.

A result of this vaccine rush has been growing distrust in a potential COVID-19 vaccine. According to USA Today, two-thirds of Americans will not take a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available.

This sentiment could be coopted by anti-vaccination groups spreading disinformation about vaccines. Indeed, an August study concluding that only around half of Britons would take a COVID-19 vaccine cited vaccine skepticism as one concern.

A rushed vaccine that causes harm could undermine the practice and destabilise efforts to inoculate a sufficient amount of the population to establish herd immunity.

Of course, overcoming these challenges and developing a successful vaccine will take time. Leading experts are working hard to produce a vaccine before this crisis gets out of control while making sure that the cure will not contribute to more destruction itself. What we know is that there will be no overnight quelling of COVID-19—as much as we want that.

So, let’s be optimistic but cautiously optimistic. At the moment, the best way to contain the spread of the disease will be to continue using a contact tracing system, washing hands, getting tested if needed, and following the government’s advice on social distancing and face masks. By following the rules, we can work together to achieve a safe, smooth return to normalcy.

This article is in our Opinions section. As such the views within are those of the contributor and do not represent an editorial stance.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union.