Will We Ever Achieve Herd Immunity?

Two weeks ago my mom hugged my grandma for the first time in over a year, and she said it was one of the best feelings in the world. The simple act of embracing a loved one, while once taken for granted, is priceless. Nowadays it does come at a price: risk of COVID-19 exposure. But now, since my mom and grandma are fully vaccinated, they can safely hug one another without fear of contracting the virus. 

The first COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer-BioNTech, was released mid- December 2020 for emergency authorization by the FDA (Food and Drug Association) to combat the pandemic (www.fda.org). As of April 2021, about 34% of the U.S. has received at least one dose of a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine (112 million people), and about 20% are fully vaccinated (66 million people)(github.com). There are three vaccines currently in use: Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen. To be fully vaccinated, you will need either two doses of Moderna or Pfizer, or one dose of Johnson & Johnson (www.cdc.gov).   

Current scientific and epidemiological thought is that we can achieve herd immunity for COVID-19 like we have done in the past with other serious diseases, including chicken pox and measles. Herd immunity is when enough people become immune to a disease that it becomes difficult for a disease to spread from person to person. Herd immunity protects the public because it reduces the spread of communicable diseases even among people who are immunocompromised from HIV/AIDS, cancer treatments and other immunosuppressing medications and conditions. For a population to achieve herd immunity, about 70-90% needs to be vaccinated. (McCallum, 2020). However, problems arise from distrust and misinformation about how vaccines work, and wealthy nations purchasing large quantities of the vaccine have digressed our nation from returning to a state of normalcy. 

Although current vaccines will prevent infection and may halt the mutation of COVID-19, about 1 in 4 Americans will still refuse the vaccine (Brumfiel, 2021). The majority of vaccination refusals come from right-wing conservatives and those from rural communities (Brumfiel, 2021). These groups claim that the vaccine was too rushed, as the covid vaccine was created and released within one year, and most vaccines take years to develop (Keith, 2021). They believe that since the long- term side effects are unknown, it is not worth compromising their health (Elterman, 2021). These concerns are understandable with so much uncertainty surrounding the virus. However, the vaccine was approved for emergency authorization by the FDA, yet vaccination hesitancy is still persistent.   

To grapple with these feelings of uncertainty, people will make up or believe anything to provide a sense of comfort. As a result, conspiracy theories have developed to provide answers. One popular conspiracy is that the vaccine implants a microchip into vaccinated individuals that would allow the government to track them, blaming Bill Gates (Goodman and Carmichael, 2020). A YouGov poll of 1,640 people suggests that 28% of Americans believe this conspiracy, while 49% reported republican political alignment (Goodman & Carmichael, 2020). This is false, as this was developed by pseudoscientists that gained traction because of the initial uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Another belief is that receiving the vaccine will cause infertility among women (Feinburg, 2021). This rumor was debunked by the CDC (Center for Disease Control), as this was yet another conspiracy developed to combat uncertainty. However, social media users onTwitter, Instagram and Facebook perpetuate this misinformation, which hinders progress toward achieving herd immunity.    

While conservatives believe the government is trying to track us, poor and marginalized communities have real reason to distrust the government, especially for Black Americans. They have faced a long history of medical mistreatment, from the Tuskegee “experiment” that started in 1932, an alleged medical encampment which abused at least 600 Black men who did not receive their promised syphilis treatments, to problems of nonconsensual sterilization for women of color, which happens even today. People of color have this overwhelming evidence to refuse medical treatment that is most often administered by white practitioners. A Pew study conducted in December 2020 found that only 42% of Black Americans reported they would receive the COVID-19 vaccine compared to 63% of White Americans (Booker, 2020). While most Black Americans have taken precautions to fight the virus, in 2020, the CDC found that 81% of Black Americans view the pandemic as a threat to public health and safety, but only 61% say they would “probably” or “definitely” get the vaccine (Johnson & Funk, 2021). While the number of Black people willing to receive the vaccine increased, (Johnson and Funk, 2021) there is still a large amount of reluctance because Black people have been historically and habitually abused in clinical settings.   

Since the vaccine has already been made available to frontline and healthcare workers, senior citizens, those with medical conditions and essential workers, the question is, who should receive the vaccine next? While the answer should be those at risk, that has not been the case.   

As another reason to distrust the government, wealthy nations have been taking control of vaccine distribution, leaving poor and developing countries no chance of achieving immunity. The US has not been an exception, as the Trump administration had purchased enormous quantities of vaccines (The Editors, 2020): 300 million doses from AstraZeneca, 100 million doses from Moderna, 100 million doses from Pfizer, 100 million doses from Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline and 100 million doses from Johnson & Johnson (The Editors, 2020). If you do the math, the total number of vaccines purchased is 700 million and the United States’ population is 330 million, leaving an immense amount of excess vaccinations. According to the WHO (World Health Organization), more than 700 million Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered globally, with more than 87% distributed to wealthier countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. At this rate, poor nations will not be fully vaccinated until 2023 or 2024. As of April 2021, 1 in 4 people in high revenue countries have received the vaccine, compared with just 1 in more than 500 in low-income countries. (Miao, 2021). This begs the question about who gets basic access to healthcare, which is treated like a privilege rather than a right.  

With this outlook on the obstacles that face vaccine reception, it does not seem likely that our world will achieve herd immunity anytime soon. It is necessary to listen to science to protect those most vulnerable in society. Here we have seen that spreading misinformation prolongs danger from COVID-19, resulting in even more unnecessary suffering and death. If you would like to understand the issue further, fact-check sources, educate yourself, others and be skeptical of information passed around on social media sites. Get vaccinated so you can hug the ones you love most.