The developed world could start to emerge from the deadly grip of the pandemic by late spring if the first wave of COVID-19 vaccines are deployed effectively, scientists say. Even so, infection rates are likely to remain high for some time.
More than 1.1 million people have been vaccinated in the U.S., U.K., China and Russia, according to Bloomberg data, with the European Union expected to approve its first shot this coming week. As many as three vaccines could be available in the West by year-end, leaving governments and scientists hopeful the pandemic could start to turn a corner in the first half of 2021.
“The one big victory we had about this outbreak was the extraordinary performance of getting vaccines available in less than a year,” Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview.
While China has also deployed vaccines, it and other Asian nations have effectively parried the pandemic with measures such as mass testing, masks and social distancing.
With older people and health care workers among the priority groups in the vaccine drive, a decrease in the number of deaths and hospitalizations will likely be the first sign the inoculations are having an impact. But with little known about how well the shots might prevent transmission, it could take much longer to bring down infection rates.
“The numbers of deaths should start to decrease slowly as the number vaccinated increases,” said Graham Medley, a professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the U.K. government’s COVID-19 advisory panel. But “if the vaccines do not stop transmission, then we will not see the numbers of infections change much.”
With more than 310,000 deaths from COVID-19, the U.S. has the most fatalities. Infections in the U.S. have topped 17 million, with more than a million new cases occurring in the past week alone.
Across Europe, nearly 376,000 people have died from COVID-19, according to the latest weekly figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, with Italy and the U.K. suffering the most fatalities. The delay from the EU in approving the first vaccine has led to frustration from some corners, particularly in Germany, where the leading Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE shot was pioneered.
European countries have moved in and out of lockdown as governments sought to contain rising infection rates and protect health systems in the face of additional winter pressures. Germany re-introduced lockdown measures this week, with all nonessential shops closed, after the country recorded its highest number of new cases since the pandemic began. In the U.K., more than half the country is under the strictest curbs, with full shutdowns planned in Wales and Northern Ireland after Christmas.
The U.K. and U.S. cleared the Pfizer vaccine this month. The U.S. also cleared a second shot from Moderna Inc., with doses available as early as Monday. A third vaccine from AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford may be approved in the U.K. before the end of the year, or in early 2021. Together, the shots comprise a significant portion of global supplies and would go some way to getting the pandemic under control once deployed at scale.
Even so, countries may need to keep social distancing restrictions in place through March or April to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed, said James Naismith, a professor of structural biology at Oxford University. Warmer weather, which would let people spend more time outside, should help Europe turn a corner by late spring, he said.
“It’s a seesaw, and we’ll be on that seesaw until the vaccine changes the rules of the game,” said Naismith. “Hopefully by the time we get to spring, we can have a permanently lower level of restrictions. We may not get rid of them all at once, but the restrictions should be less.”
The pace of change will partly depend on whether more vaccines get approved and the level of vaccine hesitancy among populations. Germany is planning to administer 11 million to 13 million doses in the first quarter — assuming the front-runner shots get cleared — but it could accelerate that schedule if regulators sign off on vaccines from developers such as AstraZeneca and CureVac NV, Health Minister Jens Spahn said at a news conference Friday.
Still, it will take months before everyone who wants a shot will be able to get one, Spahn said, adding that measures like social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing will be necessary for the foreseeable future.
How quickly the world emerges from the pandemic will also depend on how soon developing nations get vaccines, said David King, the U.K.’s former chief scientific adviser.
“Where will we be by Easter? I think we’ll still be on the road,” said King. “We have the problem in a globalized economy that we actually depend on the health of people in other countries,” and developing nations will inevitably have last dibs on a vaccine.
Things could get worse before they get better. As governments relax rules over Christmas, there’s the potential for infection rates to surge like they did in the U.S. after Thanksgiving, leading to more deaths, according to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. It’s really important people remember they could get a vaccine soon, he said.
“I understand pandemic fatigue. I have that,” said Osterholm, who is advising President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team on the virus. But people must keep following the rules for the “few short months” until vaccines are more widely available, he said.
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