Author: Caroline Schmidt
As the COVID-19 vaccines have become available to the general public, the daily cases have decreased. Life is slowly returning back to normal, but the risk of infection may never fully disappear. The body has a natural response when a pathogen, a disease causing organism, enters the body. This response is caused by the immune system. Pathogens are composed of subparts, and one of them is the antigen. The body produces antibodies that attack specific antigens. The antibodies cooperate with the rest of the immune system to destroy the pathogen and prevent the spread of disease. Also, antibody producing memory cells are left behind in this process. These cells recognize the pathogen so the body is prepared to fight it if the same virus enters the body again. Vaccines help the body produce memory cells without actually infecting the body by introducing either inactive antigens or a blueprint for producing the antigen. Vaccines not only protect individuals, but they protect communities. When many people are vaccinated, it becomes very difficult for the pathogen to circulate. Vaccination also prevents highly contagious variants from being created. Herd immunity is reached when a population is resistant to spreading a virus. This requires a certain percentage of the population to be vaccinated.
Experts believe that COVID-19 herd immunity is nearly impossible in the U.S. Early on in the pandemic, people believed that once 60-70% of people got a vaccine when one was available, herd immunity would be reached. Over time, this threshold only increased because new variants arose that were highly contagious. In the U.S., over 316 million doses of the vaccine have been administered. This is very promising but vaccination rates are falling. Also, 30% of the population is hesitant to get vaccinated. According to Mary Politi, an expert in health decision making and health communication at Washington University in St. Louis, “a better approach would be for a trusted figure to address the root cause of the hesitancy — fear, mistrust, misconceptions, ease of access or a desire for more information” (New York Times). Also, people inside and outside the U.S. do not have equal access to the vaccine. Vaccines are state administered and controlled, meaning that less privileged people can be denied vaccination. It is challenging to produce enough vaccines and distribute them well. Around 5 billion doses would have to be created, and countries would have to secure enough vaccines. Reporting all adverse events and keeping track of variants are also challenges in this pandemic. Because of these challenges, experts have alternative goals in mind that do not have to do with herd immunity.
In the future, scientists and doctors’ goals are to reduce hospitalization and death rates. Rather than eradicating the pathogen, it would be more attainable to transition the virus towards a disease like the flu that causes a common cold. The first infections would occur in early childhood, but seasonal and mild infections would happen over time. No one knows for sure what the future may hold, but people’s willingness to get vaccinated will help fight the spread of this virus.