WHO official warns global herd immunity from COVID-19 won't happen until 2022

WHO official warns global herd immunity from COVID-19 won't happen until 2022
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An official with the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that herd immunity from COVID-19 vaccines will not happen this year and physical distancing and mask wearing will need to continue into 2022.

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said the quick development of vaccines is a testament to scientists around the world, but cautioned that scaling the production on a global basis takes time.

"The vaccines are going to come. They are going to go to all countries, but meanwhile we mustn't forget that there are measures that work," like masks and physical distancing, Swaminathan said during a press briefing Monday.

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"It's really important to remind people, both government as well as individuals, on the responsibilities and measures we need to practice for the rest of this year at least, because even as vaccines start protecting the most vulnerable, we're not going to achieve any levels of population immunity, herd immunity, in 2021," she said.

Swaminathan noted that it will take a long time for the low- and middle-income countries to have enough doses to fully protect their populations. Herd immunity is a global issue, she said.

"Even if it happens in a couple of pockets in a few countries, it's not going to protect people across the world," Swaminathan said. 

WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward said the issue with low countries right now isn't the number of initial doses that will be available, but how quickly they can be given to health workers and other vulnerable people. 

Aylward said the WHO-backed COVAX initiative for low-income countries has ordered 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines, with options for 1 billion more. 

"The issue is not the lack of vaccines we are ordering, the crucial thing is the timing to get at least some of those doses early enough to protect those healthcare workers on the front lines in these countries, as well as the older populations and others who are at risk of dying," Aylward said.

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Aylward noted that virtually all the countries that have begun vaccinating people against COVID-19 are wealthy, like the U.S., Israel, Britain and China. 

 Without cooperation from manufacturers though, the concern is those rich countries will stockpile all available vaccines, leaving the 92 lower- and lower-middle income nations that comprise COVAX without the ability to help their citizens.

"Right now, we have an inequitable situation," Aylward said

“We expect, and we have strong confidence that we should be able to begin vaccinating in February in these countries," Aylward added. "But we cannot do that on our own. We require the cooperation of vaccine manufacturers to prioritize deliveries to the COVAX facility."