The Delta variant may have dashed hopes of herd immunity, but we can still live with the virus.
Authors: DAVID LIVERMORE
During the winter and spring the swiftly developed vaccines began to show startling success. Deaths from Covid fell, and severe side effects were rare. The UK rollout was among the most efficient in the world. Matt Hancock’s initial plan, laid out back in January, was to ‘cry freedom’ once the over-50s, the vulnerable and healthcare workers had been vaccinated. But then the goalposts were moved. It was decided that all adults should be offered the vaccine before we properly unlocked. Freedom was delayed and diluted in the meantime.
The logic was that near-universal adult vaccination would reduce the pool of hosts for the virus, delivering a true ‘herd immunity’ from Covid-19 – just like the kind we have from measles. Depriving the virus of hosts would also prevent the evolution of variants, it was argued. A ‘Zero Covid’ aim – through vaccination instead of lockdown – was surreptitiously adopted.
This goal was probably never very realistic. Measles vaccines, like measles infection, confer lifelong immunity. So long as enough people are vaccinated, the virus loses traction, and the few who haven’t been vaccinated are protected. This is quite different to our relationship with the four long-established coronaviruses, which cause around 10 to 20 per cent of colds.
With these viruses we enjoy what’s called a ‘dynamic equilibrium’. We get infected and develop an immunity that fades swiftly, leaving us vulnerable to reinfection. For coronavirus NL63, we usually get reinfected with the same strain. For OC43 or 229E, there are pools of variants that can infect us at different stages. In fact, it is plausible that the great ‘Russian Flu’ pandemic of 1889 to 1894 was actually caused by the coronavirus OC43. At the time it emerged, it led to over 125,000 excess deaths in Britain from a population half the size of today’s. Could Covid follow the same trajectory?PODCASTAustralia’s Zero Covid dystopiaSPIKED
In any event, this covert Zero Covid approach will fail thanks to the arrival of the Delta variant. That’s because Delta can infect even the fully vaccinated (as Piers Morgan and Sajid Javid have famously shown). Infection rates are maybe 50 to 60 per cent lower among the vaccinated than in the unvaccinated. But this is not enough to suppress a variant that is so highly transmissible. My former colleagues at Public Health England report that when the vaccinated do get infected, their viral loads – and therefore the potential for transmission – are just as high as they are in the unvaccinated.
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