By Aiman Altaf
With clinical trials of leading COVID-19 vaccine contenders coming to a close and an increasing number of countries approving vaccines for widespread use, there are various concerns about these vaccines, and what life will look like after a significant portion of the population has been vaccinated.
Potential Concerns with Vaccines
Not enough people choosing to be vaccinated: This vaccine will be the fastest-developed vaccine in history, and has the most debate and politicization surrounding it. In October, a survey reported that only 58% of Americans would get a vaccine when they become available, even if it was free of charge. There is now a growing debate surrounding receiving the vaccine and many believe that because of the speed with which this vaccine was developed, corners were cut and there may be unforeseen side effects.
However, it is important to note that some of the reasons this vaccine was developed much faster than previously was because of far more funding, much larger clinical trials that tested it on tens of thousands of people, and many more researchers working on developing the vaccine. The fact that the vaccine will be so widely used, basically on the entire global population, means that even more precautions were likely followed. Clinical trials found very mild side effects that are expected with any vaccine, but definitely not something to fear. The fact that the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines are genetic vaccines is a source of concern for some people, who fear that these may alter their genetics or have long term effects, but the genetic material used in these vaccines is RNA, which is quickly degraded in the human body by enzymes and is impossible to be integrated into our own DNA.
In any case, if not enough people decide to be vaccinated, herd immunity will not be established. Herd immunity is when enough of the population has taken the vaccine that the virus is simply not as present in the human population. It is necessary because simply taking a vaccine does not fully protect people from the virus, since vaccines are not 100% effective (the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines showed 94-95% efficacy). Instead, the hope is that when enough people in the population vaccinate, then the virus will have no means of spreading and will die down. When people who are able to vaccinate choose not to, herd immunity breaks down. This is especially dangerous for immunocompromised individuals who simply cannot be vaccinated.
Mutations of the Coronavirus: Since the coronavirus is a retrovirus, meaning it uses RNA as its genetic material, it rapidly mutates. This is the case for HIV, and is one of the main reasons a vaccine has not been successfully developed. It is also the case for the seasonal flu, which is why a new vaccine has to be developed each year. If the coronavirus mutates and is no longer susceptible to a certain vaccine, we will need other versions of coronavirus vaccines to take over. For example, a new rapid-spreading mutation of coronavirus was recently identified in the UK. 13 coronavirus vaccines are currently in or have completed phase 3 clinical trials, so we will probably have multiple vaccines circulating worldwide.
Refrigeration: the mRNA vaccines need to be kept at extremely low temperatures to avoid degradation, and this makes transporting and distributing them very difficult, especially in more remote areas or those with fewer resources. Although special transport boxes have been built, it still complicates distribution.
Expense and Availability: the different vaccines vary in price, and it is unclear who will pay for the vaccines, especially in poorer countries that cannot afford to purchase it for their entire populations. More affluent countries already have agreements with vaccine developers, so they will have vaccines first and will have systems in place to distribute them, while people in less affluent countries might have to wait until the end of 2021 or even later to receive a vaccine.
Two-shot Sequence: Most coronavirus vaccines being developed require one shot followed by a booster shot in several weeks. This makes it necessary to keep track of people and ensure that those who got the first shot also receive the second.
What will the world look like in a few years?
In 2021, it is unclear who and how many people will receive vaccines, and what effect those have. However, public health officials state that despite widespread vaccination, until the majority of the population is vaccinated and we can analyze the results of vaccination through epidemiological studies, basic prevention measures like wearing masks, hand washing, and social distancing will continue to be adopted. This means many universities and schools will still operate virtually, at least in the first half of 2021, and for those that do open, there will likely be staggered timings for students and limitations on gatherings.
Many workplaces worldwide are already open, but as is the case right now, preventive measures will continue to be employed and regular screening/testing will need to be conducted to prevent larger outbreaks. Even currently, preventive measures are a huge factor in reducing the spread of the disease.
Another factor to be considered is how long immunity created by the vaccine will last; if it is around a year for example, then annual vaccination would have to be implemented similar to the flu vaccine, and we might see annual outbreaks in colder climates. However, healthcare systems will hopefully be better equipped to deal with those after this year’s experience.
Looking beyond, a major impact of this pandemic has been the speeding up of automation and technological advances. Many jobs and functions have transitioned online to increase their accessibility remotely during the pandemic, and this has drastically increased efficiency, so this is an effect that might be here to stay. Another place where the pandemic will have a huge persisting impact is in schools and workplaces. These have had to rapidly adapt due to the virus, but what many are finding is that many resources and funds can be significantly conserved through an online modality. In the future, we’ll see more online offerings at universities, for example, and people will be able to work more seamlessly from home when they are sick, or the workplace environment is under construction, and more. Additionally, the reliance on the internet has dramatically increased during the pandemic, and that will likely be a long-lasting effect.
Reshaping urban communities
Urban communities have also been reshaped, with more outdoor spaces becoming available, and accessibility to basic services like healthcare. Some countries have worked hard to reduce their slums and connect new sanitation and health sources to previously underserved areas. Food distribution has also been worked on, following the scare that happened when supermarkets faced major shortages at the start of lockdowns, and when people in more remote or less affluent areas did not have access to food.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a key lesson we have learned from this pandemic is that the global population is so deeply interconnected through international travel and trade, that effects that might start in one location can rapidly spread globally and have devastating impacts. The source of this virus was a wet meat market in China, and now that the grave threats of such markets have been recognized, various areas in China have already placed restrictions on them. Following this experience, we will likely see new agreements being created by world leaders so nations can be notified of potential outbreaks in a more timely manner and thus start efforts to contain them before they become as widespread as COVID-19.
Additionally, with the mRNA vaccine mechanism, developing a vaccine for any new future threats is easier, and can be done using the same facilities used for this vaccine, which previously was not an option for other non-genetic based vaccines.
And perhaps on a more individual level, this pandemic has taught us how fleeting our sense of normalcy is, and how adaptable humans have to be to survive in such a rapidly changing world. It has given many of us time to reflect on the opportunities we are lucky to have, and brought to light many social issues that we may not have noticed or taken action on before. In any case, it is safe to say COVID-19 has made us more resilient and capable of dealing with any curveballs life throws our way.
Brannen, Samuel. “Covid-19 Reshapes the Future.” Covid-19 Reshapes the Future | Center for Strategic and International Studies, Center for Strategic and International Studies , 28 July 2020, www.csis.org/analysis/covid-19-reshapes-future.
Dartnell, Lewis. “The Covid-19 Changes That Could Last Long-Term.” BBC Future, BBC, 20 June 2020, www.bbc.com/future/article/20200629-which-lockdown-changes-are-here-to-stay.
Silverman, Ed. “Poll: Fewer Americans Want a Covid-19 Vaccine as Soon as Possible.” STAT News, 19 Oct. 2020, www.statnews.com/pharmalot/2020/10/19/covid19-coronavirus-pandemic-vaccine-racial-disparities/.