Much of our worrying these days takes place in the light of a COVID-19 vaccine, now glowing like the first hint of sun on the horizon. We argue over whether kids should go back to school this fall in person or remotely — just for now, until the vaccine comes. Should your grandmother stay home and cut her own hair, at least until we get a vaccine? And, sure, get married now, but hold the big party in a year, after there’s a vaccine and we can all kiss the happy couple and dance the exuberant dance of our people, whoever they may be.
We are like teenagers looking forward to the day when we turn 18, and are magically set free to vote and drink beer in a bar. But unlike aging and sunrise, the COVID-19 vaccine is far from a sure thing. And if we let our hopes for a vaccine strongly shape our decisions now, we may lose the chance to create longer-term social solutions that we are likely to need, with or without a vaccine.
True, it is thrilling to think of the human energy, brainpower and competitive will being exerted to find a vaccine to save us, including those of us who can’t be bothered to wear a mask. More than 155 vaccines are being explored, and 23 already are being tested in people.
So let’s pretend the “hard part” is done: A vaccine has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective, and the monumental task of manufacturing and distributing hundreds of millions of U.S. doses is well underway. To be approved, a COVID-19 vaccine should be at least 50% effective, the FDA has suggested, similar to the level achieved by the yearly flu vaccine. By comparison, the measles, rubella and chickenpox vaccines are more than 90% effective. So let’s be hopeful and say the COVID-19 vaccine is 80% effective. That theoretically should be enough to confer the holy grail of herd immunity — if the immunity is long-lived, still a troubling unknown, and if everyone takes it. But will they?
In the past, developing a U.S.-licensed vaccine for a newly identified virus has taken between 12 years (for Hepatitis B) and never (36 years and counting, for HIV). Now, when vaccine deniers and doubters resist even the most time-tested, life-saving vaccines, how many will embrace a new vaccine developed, we hope, far more quickly?
In three recent surveys, 40% to 60% of respondents said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine, about 20% said they would not, and the rest — 20% to 40% — were uncommitted. This suggests that public acceptance could swing wildly, depending in part on how trustworthy scientists and public officials are judged to be. But irrational and erratic behavior by many public officials has been eroding trust, no matter where on the spectrum you stand. And if the vaccine causes unexpected side effects, as occurred with some other novel vaccines, even stalwartly pro-vax people are likely to hang back.
Perhaps, as happened with HIV, vastly improved treatment of infected people will come to take the place of a vaccine, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Wonderful as that would be, better treatment would lessen but not eliminate the suffering of the sick, the burden on families, hospitals, and the economy, and the steady drizzle of anxiety into so many of our lives.
So while we hope for a vaccine, we need to figure out ways to do without one — to safely work, vote, educate our children, sustain jobs, and provide social and economic supports to those left jobless or destitute by the pandemic. And we need to make progress on other pressing issues, topped by racial justice and climate change.
Unless the virus wanes for some unknown reason, for the foreseeable future we will have to carry all this out while wearing masks, keeping our distance, and periodically isolating ourselves when we are notified that we have been exposed.
People are pretty good at rising to the occasion, if they know what they have to do. We are better off planning for the worst, and celebrating if we’re wrong, than banking on a vaccine to make everything right.
Elizabeth Bass, a former Newsday editor, is former director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.
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