In several countries around the world, mass Covid-19 vaccination campaigns are underway, giving the first glimmer of hope that life as we knew it could be back within our control.
The United Kingdom was the first country to start vaccinating its people with a completely vetted and approved Covid-19 vaccine and is among the countries with the highest number of vaccines deployed per capita.
But how quickly can the UK, and maybe the rest of the world, expect some sort of normality to return? The truth is, not very soon.
Experts in public health widely accept that relying on the vaccine as a silver bullet to end the pandemic is unrealistic; they claim coronavirus precautions, such as masks and social distancing, are likely to stay in effect for at least many months.
According to a CNN report Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia said that many factors must be considered before the UK’s lockdown is relaxed — starting with a big drop in severe cases and deaths.
“The issue comes down to numbers really,” Hunter said.
He explained that if the United Kingdom were in a similar situation to that of August 2020, when the number of new cases on most days was below 1,000 — and dipped to lows of 600 — and hospitalizations were below 100 and regular deaths were below 10, then the country might be in a better position to relax some of the current restrictions, provided that the roll-out of vaccination is ongoing.
But outbreaks are still running out of control across the UK, where on Wednesday, more than 25,000 new cases and 1,725 coronavirus deaths were recorded, taking the number of Covid-19 deaths in the country to 101,887.
So far, the UK vaccine program has been extremely successful, and there is another key factor to keep in mind: its coverage rates.
Firstly, vaccinations are currently only available to priority categories that make up about 20% of the population of the United Kingdom: the elderly, those that are clinically vulnerable, and health care staff, many of whom are also more likely to take the vaccine, research indicates.
The take-up rate is expected to decrease when the vaccine becomes available to the broader population, as certain sections of the population may be unwilling to take it (children and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, for example) — while others will remain hesitant to take it.
The study, based on surveys taken in November, found that 72% of Black or Black British respondents said they were unlikely or very unlikely to take the vaccine. Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups were the next most hesitant minority ethnic group, with 42% unlikely or very unlikely to be vaccinated.
This means that certain measures will have to stay in place to protect vulnerable people in unvaccinated populations, Hunter said, adding that, depending on the percentage of the population that is either resistant or vaccinated by then, another increase in cases in the fall and winter is possible.
What is the Best-case scenario
One study, developed by John Roberts, a member of the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group, earlier this month, predicts that by the end of March, deaths in the UK may be reduced by nearly 90% and that by mid-March, hospitalizations could fall by almost 60%.
But the forecast model assumes a best-case scenario where, by February 15, the government achieves its goal of providing the first dose to all vulnerable groups — and where it is approved by all those given a shot.
The model of Roberts also relies on the assumption that the vaccine is 70% effective in preventing infections and 100% effective in preventing serious illnesses that would lead to hospitalizations and deaths, which are now threatened by the new variants.
Some experts say it is unclear whether vaccines offer full protection against severe disease and death, arguing that clinical trials have assessed the efficacy against developing symptoms but that data was more limited on the severe disease. Others also say a full uptake is unrealistic.
It could be helpful to take these caveats into account and create a wide range of plausible scenarios to predict when we can hope to see some impact—which is what researchers from the University of Warwick, the University of Edinburgh, and Imperial College London have done.
Last week in the UK, more than 2.5 million people received their first dose of the vaccine and 18,177 received a second dose. The researchers estimate population-level immunity in the UK was 19% from past infection as of mid-January.