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Will the New COVID-19 Vaccines Allow Life to Return to Normal in 2021?

In November, the world received some long-overdue news; that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had been proven to be 95% effective against COVID-19. At the time, Uğur Şahin, the CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, said the following: “These achievements highlight the potential of mRNA as a new drug class. Our objective from the very beginning was to design and develop a vaccine that would generate rapid and potent protection against Covid-19 with a benign tolerability profile across all ages. We believe we have achieved this with our vaccine candidate BNT162b2 in all age groups studied so far and look forward to sharing further details with the regulatory authorities. “I want to thank all the devoted women and men who contributed to this historically unprecedented achievement. We will continue to work with our partners and governments around the world to prepare for global distribution in 2020 and beyond”.

As of mid-December, trials have shown the clinical effectiveness of other Coronavirus vaccines, including that developed by US firm, Moderna, and the UK developed drug from Oxford/AstraZeneca. The UK was the first country worldwide to approve the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and as a result, it is estimated that 140,000 people have now been vaccinated in the UK.

What Do Experts Believe Will Happen In 2021?

It is one thing for us laypeople to attempt to guess when life may return to near normal in 2021, but the views of the experts and scientists will likely provide the best predictions. According to the embattled US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, Anthony Fauci, it may be possible to reach the point of having ‘herd immunity’ by the end of Summer 2021, and relative normality by the end of 2021. Fauci recently stated, “Let’s say we get 75 percent, 80 percent of the population vaccinated,” Fauci said. “If we do that, if we do it efficiently enough over the second quarter of 2021, by the time we get to the end of the summer, i.e., the third quarter, we may actually have enough herd immunity protecting our society that as we get to the end of 2021, we can approach very much some degree of normality that is close to where we were before”. Clearly, there is a great deal of dependence on the vaccination process progressing smoothly and in sufficient volume to make this happen.

Others have been more bullish, expressing the view that normality would emerge in Spring 2021. Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University was one of those back in early November, when he said, “I am probably the first guy to say that, but I will say that with some confidence”.

Another expert we should take note of has also attempted to look into the crystal ball. Prof Ugur Sahin, BioNTech co-founder, told the BBC he thinks it will take longer than Spring 2021. He believes that all vaccination programmes need to be completed by Autumn 2021, and that “Summer will help us because the infection rate will go down in the summer and what is absolutely essential is that we get a high vaccination rate until or before autumn/winter next year”.

Vaccine Purgatory?

A detailed article in the Atlantic takes a more realistic, and some may argue, pessimistic view on what will happen in 2021. As the author rightly says, “vaccines are not an off switch”. There will be numerous challenges along the way, including likely delays in vaccine timelines due to unforeseen events, and fights over who should take priority. There is also the question of how those who have been vaccinated should behave. In the states, there is already considerable conjecture as each state can decide how it wishes to distribute the vaccine. Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Atlantic, “It is such a complicated and large logistical challenge that a lot of things will go wrong. A lot of things will not go to plan”. The reality, as any project manager will tell you, is that with any large and complex programme of work, things do and will go wrong. It is easy for optimism and excitement to cloud our assessment of the likely outcome of 2021. Suffice to say, it will probably take longer than we expect, but the world will make great strides in 2021.

Much will also depend on the other measures which continue alongside the vaccination roll-outs. It is likely that the public will still need to continue social distancing and wearing masks for many months, if not most of 2021. As Rochelle Walensky, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for CDC director, stated, “If I have a cup of water, I can put out a stove fire. But I can’t put out a forest fire, even if that water is 100% potent. That’s why everyone must wear a mask. As a nation, we’ll recover faster if you give the vaccine less work to do when it’s ready”.

Wrapping Up

The speed and extent to which normality returns will also depend on how other countries respond. While one country may roll out a vaccine across its population by the Summer, others may not. This may mean that travel restrictions between countries may remain in force for some countries and not others. Countries with smaller populations, such as New Zealand, will potentially be able to complete their whole vaccination programme fast than others, hence there will be a great deal of international imbalance as to who is back to normal, and who is not. For now, all we can do as individuals is continue to exercise caution and patience, for one day, normality will return. Although what may follow this is anyone’s guess.

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