Hopes of Achieving Herd Immunity by Fall Look Dim, Biden’s Health Experts Warn

President Joe Biden’s COVID team is evidently warning internally that herd immunity on COVID, which they hope is achievable through vaccines, may not happen until Thanksgiving or even early winter, says a new report from the Daily Beast.

The Biden administration is, the Daily Beast reports, concerned about vaccine availability and has been attempting to calculate how many people need to be vaccinated for the nation to achieve herd immunity. On Sunday, Biden acknowledged the likely extended timeline for herd immunity in an interview with CBS. “The idea that this can be done and we can get to herd immunity much before the end of this summer is very difficult,” he said.

A late-year herd immunity date is months later than health experts have been predicting. Previously, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Biden’s chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci was hopeful that the U.S. would be able to achieve herd immunity — and a sense of “normalcy” — by early to mid-fall.

Herd immunity is achieved when the virus can’t spread effectively among a population anymore because most of the population has developed a resistance to it either through exposure to the illness — which takes a very long time and can cost many lives — or, as in this case, through vaccination. Experts have disagreed about how much of the population needs to be vaccinated against COVID in order to achieve immunity, and experts’ estimates have, concerningly, only become harder to pin down over time.

Whereas earlier last year experts were saying that the optimum number to achieve herd immunity was 70 percent, a number that Fauci initially agreed with, he has since quietly bumped that number up — first to 75, then 80 percent, and later still to 90 percent by the end of December, according to The New York Times.

At the current rate of vaccination, with the two-dose vaccines currently being used, 90 percent of the population will likely not get vaccinated for nearly a year, according to a vaccine population calculator put out by The Washington Post. Last week, 1.48 million vaccines were administered a day. That number is climbing and is above Biden’s original goal of 1 million vaccines a day in his first 100 days in office, but it will take 2 million shots per day to reach 90 percent vaccinated by November, according to the calculator.

Still, realistically, 90 percent vaccinated will be very hard, if not impossible, to hit. Polls show that around 15 percent of Americans are adamantly opposed to receiving the vaccine. A further 17 percent say they probably won’t get it, according to a new Associated Press-NORC poll.

The new variants of the coronavirus pose problems, too, and make vaccination administration an issue of speed. Health experts say that not only should the administration shift their aspirations higher with regards to vaccine administration, but that higher vaccination rates will be necessary in order to come out ahead of the new, more transmissible variants like the ones first found in South Africa, Brazil and the U.K. — and possibly others. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Monday that new variants have likely formed but haven’t yet been detected.

Speed is of the essence here — if more people are immunized faster, then the virus has less of a chance to form new variants. Some scientists are exploring the possibility that the U.K. variant, for instance, formed and mutated in one person. So, it follows that the smaller the number of people infected, the less opportunity the virus has to be introduced into environments where it could thrive and mutate.

As far as the vaccines themselves, clinical trial results have been promising so far in that all of the vaccines have been effective against severe illness, hospitalization and death. What is relatively unknown is how each vaccine can perform against the variants specifically, and that’s throwing a lot of uncertainty into the herd immunity matrix.

Trials for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine released last month found that the vaccine was only 57 percent effective at preventing infection in South Africa, where a variant is now dominant. The Novavax vaccine, which is currently being tested in the U.S., was found to be only 60 percent effective in South Africa, and even less so among people with HIV.

The trials for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were conducted before the new variants were found, so little is known about their efficacy. Lab results have led experts to hope that, since both vaccines have been otherwise so effective, the vaccines will still perform fine against the variants. But, without a full set of clinical trials, it’s impossible to tell.

The vaccines can be tweaked to be effective against the variants if need be, health experts say, but that will take time — time that we don’t necessarily have if we want herd immunity soon.

The good news is that, as more people have been vaccinated, cases are declining. And, even if herd immunity is never achieved, with the vaccines dampening the most serious effects of the virus, the world may just be able to adapt.