Ongoing fourth wave of infections around the world — predominantly with the Delta variant — has made many people question the success of the vaccination campaigns.
However, the reality is that everything is happening just as it was predicted.
What are vaccines for anyway?
I think many people misunderstood the role vaccines would play in ending the pandemic by somehow destroying the virus.
In the early days, there was hope that by immunising millions of people they would stop the spread of the disease.
However, this was far from certain and medical experts’ as well as vaccine manufacturers’ warning that while vaccines produce a strong immune response, there’s no guarantee that they prevent circulation of the virus.
Today, we know that they didn’t, even if they may have reduced it. Logically speaking, the less severe your symptoms, the shorter their duration and lower the risk that you’re going to release more of the viral material by coughing, talking or sneezing.
But the point of vaccines was, first and foremost, to save lives.
By boosting our immune response to the virus, training the body to fight it off by equipping it with necessary antibodies, vaccines were supposed to reduce hospitalisations for severe infections and resulting fatalities.
And we know that in this aspect, they have performed exceedingly well.
Science is winning
While COVID-19 is still spreading, its toll is nothing like what it was last year.
Let’s take a look at the UK. While it was one of the first major countries to vaccinate a huge proportion of its population and bring the daily case count to a trickle in the spring, it was also one of the first to witness a subsequent bounce-back, reaching very nearly the same daily levels of reported infections as during its worst outbreak in the winter.
In January the wave peaked amidst tight lockdowns, at around 60,000 cases and 1,200 deaths per day (a seven-day daily rolling average).
The most recent surge in July, reached nearly 50,000 cases daily but just 88 deaths a few weeks later (deaths usually trail the detected cases by around a month). This is a ten-fold improvement within six months.
Looking at other highly vaccinated nations, we are seeing similar results (with some variation, depending on how many people have actually gotten the shot, how many cases have been detected etc).
In Spain, the winter peak reached 29,000 daily cases in mid-January, followed by the peak in casualties, reaching an average of 490 daily deaths by mid-February.
Summer wave topped out at 27,000 cases in mid-July, but as we’re in the middle of August now, the daily death count peaked at 70, which is a seven-fold improvement.
Countries which are only in the middle of the latest surge are reporting anywhere from two- to five-fold improvement versus comparable periods last year, and the gap is likely to grow by the time the infection figures top out.
All of this is taking place with a highly more transmissible variant — approximately two to three times more infectious than the original strain of the virus — under much less restrictive conditions this year (no lockdowns, relaxed masking rules).
Perhaps the virus is just weaker?
At this point, you may question the severity of the latest strain. Perhaps, it’s not the vaccines that protect us, but the fact that COVID-19 devolved into a less deadly virus?
To see why that might not be the case, we have to look at the countries where vaccination rates are relatively low and are struggling with their first really serious waves, having been largely spared in 2020.
While it’s difficult to compare figures 1:1 between different countries (since reporting and testing capacity is different as well as average age, existing comorbidities in the society and other risk factors), it’s quite clear that in places like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand or India, a surge in infections was followed by a surge in deaths.
Overwhelmed hospitals, patients lying on the floor, deaths of doctors and nurses — the very same horror images we witnessed in the West last year — are now reported from other parts of the world, where vaccines remain in short supply.
Whether Delta is statistically more deadly or not, it’s clear that it is still extremely serious and still able to overload entire national healthcare systems just like earlier variants did.
The fact that we’re not seeing a repeat of the disasters in places ravaged in 2020, can be attributed solely to the vaccines.
The more people get their jabs, the fewer severe cases will occur and the virus itself may be beaten down to a form of relatively mild cold. We may, however, still require booster shots to keep our immunity high every year.
Still, it’s a small price to pay for a peace of mind and a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, even if we are forced to live with COVID-19 circulating the world for many years to come.
What does it mean for Singapore?
While other countries may still be fighting COVID skeptics, people who think the virus doesn’t exist or that it’s not a major issue, in Singapore, the biggest source for vaccine hesitancy is partly the success and extent of the vaccination campaign.
The city-state is one of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world and the efficacy of the vaccines may, paradoxically, convince many not to get their jab, since everybody else is likely to have gotten one anyway.
We have seen this reported among the elderly in particular, who think it’s either not worth to get vaccinated or that they don’t have much left anyway. This is very dangerous for everyone.
By now, it seems that the elusive herd immunity — i.e. the point when a sufficiently large proportion of the population is resistant to the virus, bringing its spread down and eliminating it as a threat — may be beyond our capabilities.
While protection provided by the vaccines may still be high against the Delta variant, it may not be high enough to provide effective herd immunity. In other words, those who were hoping to get away without getting a jab when 70+ per cent of others received their shots, should now get in line and get themselves covered too.
Otherwise, they may not only face consequences of a severe COVID-19 infection, but may still pass it onto others or even serve as a reservoir for future mutations of the virus, further evading vaccines.
We may not be able to eradicate COVID but thanks to the vaccines, we can live with it.
Fortunately, Singapore doesn’t have too many stubborn skeptics to deal with, but those few laggards left no longer have good excuses, especially since the country is eager to finally open up to the world and resume normal economic activity.
That is almost certain to lead to many more imported cases, which may force it back into border lockdown if sufficiently large group of Singaporeans is not vaccinated yet and causes another major outbreak.
Getting yourself vaccinated protects your life and getting everyone vaccinated protects livelihoods of all.
Featured Image Credit: Singapore National Eye Centre / Singapore Eye Research Institute