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WHO Chief Scientist: COVID-19 Herd Immunity Unlikely In 2021 Despite Vaccines

Johannes Van Zijl

Johannes Van Zijl

Johannes has a MSci in Neuroscience from King’s College London and serves as the Managing Director at IFLScience.

Managing Director


It would be very unlikely for the majority of countries around the globe to achieve herd immunity in 2021. By next143/

During a press briefing on Monday in Geneva, the chief scientists for the World Health Organization said that it would be very unlikely for the majority of countries around the globe to achieve herd immunity in 2021. This is even with the current efforts to innoculate populations with the various approved COVID-19 vaccines

“We are not going to achieve any levels of population immunity or herd immunity in 2021,” the WHO’s chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan told a news briefing on Monday.


“Even if it happens in a couple of pockets in a few countries, it’s not going to protect people across the world.”

Dr Swaminathan hailed the great progress in developing vaccines in such a short time frame but mentioned that the rollout remains a challenge. 

“It takes time to scale the production of doses, not just in the millions, but here we are talking about in the billions,” she stated, saying that people need to “be a little bit patient”.

At the end of 2020 Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated that herd immunity to COVID-19 could be achieved by summer 2021 in the US. However, he stated it was dependent on how effectively the vaccines could be distributed, and how much of the population is inoculated by then. 


Countries like Sweden, who had undertaken a herd immunity “approach” with no lockdowns from the start of the pandemic without having a vaccine available, experienced real challenges with record numbers of cases and increased deaths in recent times. The King of Sweden later came out to call the approach a failure

It is generally accepted that herd immunity can be achieved when 50 to 90 percent of the population is vaccinated. However many countries – especially in Africa – are left without vaccine opportunities, as most wealthy countries have bought the immediately available vaccines in large quantities. Amnesty International UK put out a press report that suggested 9 in 10 people in poor countries are likely to miss out on a COVID-19 vaccine in 2021. 

“No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket. But unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 for years to come.” Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s Health Policy Manager, said in the press release.

Although we can see some light nearing the end of the dark tunnel, some challenges still remain to get the world vaccinated in 2021, and normal life may still be a long way off. 


For more information about COVID-19, check out the IFLScience COVID-19 hub where you can follow the current state of the pandemic, the progress of vaccine development, and further insights into the disease.


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