Now that we (may) have a vaccine, let’s talk about what it could mean. Because it’s not all Problem Solved. We’ve had a little time to feel good, so now we get to look for monsters under the bed. They may turn out not to be there, but let’s take a look while it’s daytime. Just to be safe.
Potential monster number one: We don’t know yet whether the Pfizer vaccine will keep people who’ve been exposed to the virus from spreading it. It may, but it’s also possible that it–or any other vaccine–will keep people from getting sick but not keep them from being silent spreaders. That would mean we can’t end social distancing and can’t burn our masks.
I can’t tell if those are beady little monster eyes I’m seeing or if it’s the buttons I lost a couple of years back.
I really should clean under there more often.
Potential monster number two: If the Pfizer vaccine is the one we all go with initially, logistical problems are a certainty. It has to be kept at an insanely cold temperature–minus 70 C. That’s minus 94 F. Not even forty years in Minnesota prepared me to understand how cold that is. The worst I saw was minus 40 F., and I think that counted the wind chill. It was cold enough to freeze any thought other than How do I get indoors but wasn’t cold enough to impress this vaccine.
That’s going to be more of a problem in countries without a well-developed infrastructure and without the money for a supply of–um, what do you use to keep a drug at that temperature? Something with more insulation than your average lunch bucket.
Potential monster number three: How much of the vaccine can be produced how quickly, and at what cost. And how much of what’s produced will be available to poorer countries? Because until the virus is under control everywhere, it won’t be fully under control anywhere.
Potential monster number three and a half: Initial supplies will be limited, and the British government’s drawn up a tentative list of what sort of people will be priorities, but no country’s likely to have enough doses for all of its population. So what does that mean?
Say a vaccine protects 70% of the people who get it. (This is based on an article that came out before the preliminary Pfizer announcement of 90% protection, so the numbers will change but the structure of the problem won’t.) If 70% of the population is vaccinated, which is unlikely at first, 49% of the population will be immune.
Why 49%? Why not 49%. It’s a nice number–just off balance enough to be convincing. What it’s not, though, is enough to give us herd immunity. If the priorities for vaccination are the oldest people, the most vulnerable, and (please!) the front-line workers, that will still mean that younger healthy people need to maintain social distancing, wear masks, and generally continue to live the way we’ve been living. And people who’ve been vaccinated probably will as well if the vaccine doesn’t keep them from being contagious. Otherwise they’ll endanger both the 51% of vulnerable people who haven’t been protected. And (I know, I keep saying this) younger people are more vulnerable to this than we tend to think, so they’ll endanger them as well.
But it’s not all monsters and buttons and dust bunnies under the bed. We’ve got some potential monster-slayers too.
Sorry, I don’t mean to get bloodthirsty about this. If you’re squeamish about killing a virus, take heart: A virus is not actually alive. Or else it is. This is something microbiologists argue about. It all depends on how you define life. Either way, though, it’s them or us. It’s enough to drive even the most dedicated pacifist to sit down and have a good long think.
So, potential monster-slayer one: On a very long-term basis, it’s possible that young kids who catch the virus but don’t get sick will build up a generational semi-immunity and Covid will eventually become just another cold. It’s possible that the four coronaviruses that cause colds started out like Covid. One of the four left cattle and discovered humans around 1890–the same year as what’s been thought of as a flu pandemic but might, in hindsight, have been a cousin of Covid.
It’s possible. It’s also possible that all that is wrong. And of course most of us have to live long enough and emerge healthy enough for that to matter.
Potential monster-slayer two: More immediately, with the introduction of a vaccine, testing and tracing come into their own. They’re most effective when case numbers are relatively low–much lower than Britain has at the moment– because a country needs to track and quarantine every case. A vaccine could put us in a position to use testing and tracing well.
Of course, even if you only have three cases, you still need a competent track and trace system. I’m not sure ours is up to the challenge of three cases yet.
Early in the pandemic, South Korea used track and trace well and Joshua Gans of the University of Toronto says, “We need to all become South Korea as quickly as possible.”
That will mean ensuring that quarantine actually works. Estimates of the percentage of people in England who fully self-isolate when they’re supposed to are low (11% according to one study), and the situation isn’t helped by the lack of genuine financial support. Some people can’t afford to stay home. Others, presumably, don’t take it seriously.
One problem with testing has been that the fast tests are less accurate than the slow ones. A test that is 90% sensitive will miss 10% of positives. But don’t despair. Baffling math may save us here. “Two tests five to seven days apart are 99% sensitive in finding you positive–if you actually are,” according to epidemiologist Tim Sly.
No, don’t ask me. They’re numbers. I can’t explain why they do what they do. The main thing is not to let them sense your fear.
The recommendation is to test people frequently–frontline workers, people who fly, people who breathe. Some of the rapid tests can spot people who are actually transmitting the virus, not just people who have symptoms.
So we’re not ready to have a massive, maskless, indoor party the day after the vaccine arrives. Or maybe even the year after the vaccine arrives. Put away the confetti. Take a bite of the ice cream, then shove it back in the freezer.
But the picture is changing, and even though we have a government that’s elevated incompetence to an art form, I’m hopeful.