Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the world, causing 5 million recorded infections and 333,000 deaths so far, with a third of the world under lockdown.
In order for life to return to "normal", there are only really two routes out of this: Enough people get infected that we develop herd immunity, or we develop a vaccine and enough people take it that we get herd immunity through that. One of these will involve millions of deaths, the other – given that vaccines go through rigorous safety checks – does not. New data, however, suggests a quarter of Americans have no interest in taking a Covid-19 vaccine if it was available.
The signs indicate that achieving herd immunity without a vaccine would be a long and painful haul. Sweden has opted for less stringent rules since the outbreak. Rather than a strict lockdown, it has allowed citizens to continue to go to bars, parks and restaurants, while still encouraging social distancing (though not strictly enforcing it). Data suggests it has one of the highest death rates per capita in Europe, and it doesn't look like this plan of action has translated into high levels of potential immunity in the population. A study published this week found that just 7.3 percent of the 1,104 analyzed samples collected from people in Stockholm contained Covid-19 antibodies.
The country says its policies are aimed at preventing the health system from being overwhelmed, rather than achieving herd immunity, but there were hopes that the population would develop some protection to the virus in the event of a second wave. At 7 percent, this doesn't look promising.
This leaves us with the second (and much more preferable) option: Developing a vaccine. We've never developed a vaccine for a coronavirus before, but multiple teams around the world are working on it, and initial trials are beginning to look positive. Just this week, a study found that monkeys that survived Covid-19 or received an early vaccine developed protection from the virus. We don't know how long the protection lasts, or if it will even translate into humans, but the data suggests that developing antibodies offers some protection, and a vaccine is likely possible, even if it takes years.
Which may lead us to our next hurdle: Convincing a vaccine-skeptical population to take it. The below gif explains how herd immunity works when a population is vaccinated, compared to when it's not.
Unfortunately, over the last few decades skepticism about vaccines has risen, largely stemming from a now-retracted study linking autism to the MMR vaccine in the 1980s. The results of Andrew Wakefield's study have never been replicated, and it later transpired he had falsified data, for which his medical license was revoked.
However you'd hope that with a disease killing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, folks might be keener on vaccines than they have been in the past. Unfortunately, a new poll by Reuters and Ipsos has found that a quarter of Americans have little to no interest in taking a Covid-19 vaccine.
Of those, nearly half said they were worried that the speed at which they are being developed could compromise safety, and more than 40 percent said they believe the vaccine is riskier than the disease itself. Even though, and I really must stress this, it's a vaccine that doesn't yet exist. When one does become available, and there are more than 100 vaccine candidates currently under development, it will still have to go through rigorous safety checks to ensure that taking it is far, far safer than contracting the disease itself.
The poll found skepticism went along partisan lines, with one in five Republicans saying they had no interest in taking a vaccine, more than twice the number of Democrats. Overall, 36 percent of respondents said they would be less inclined to want to take a vaccine if the President said it was safe, compared to 14 percent who would be more interested.
On a positive note, 84 percent of all respondents said they thought vaccines for diseases such as measles are safe for both adults and kids, suggesting hesitancy over a coronavirus vaccine may be swayed with safety assurances. Among those who said they were not very interested, 29 percent said they would be more interested if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it first, showing trust in the institution and medical experts – something that is also on the increase according to a Pew research report released this week.
Hopefully, by the time a vaccine is developed and has been proven safe and effective, attitudes will be more vaccine positive. Even after we've done the hard bit of developing a lifesaving vaccine and figuring out the distribution of it (itself no mean feat), we may face a final challenge in convincing the population to take it.