Even With a Vaccine, There May Never Be a Silver Bullet for COVID-19

That’s why the WHO implores us to “do it all.”

By Sarah Jacoby

The World Health Organization has a sobering message for everyone hoping that a vaccine for COVID-19 or some other silver bullet might magically save us from the pandemic: It’s not likely.

It’s been six months since the WHO declared the COVID-19 pandemic an international public health emergency. And many of us have, understandably, spent a lot of that time hoping for an effective vaccine for COVID-19 because that seems like the one thing we need to get the country—and our lives—back to “normal.” But in a press conference this week, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ph.D., director-general of the WHO, reminded us that whether there’s a vaccine or not, it will take a lot more than that to conquer the new coronavirus.

“A number of vaccines are now in phase-three clinical trials, and we all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection,” Ghebreyesus said, according to a press release. “However, there’s no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be.”

Obviously, developing a safe, effective, and accessible vaccine is incredibly important in our efforts to fight the pandemic. But it’s also crucial that we don’t fool ourselves into thinking this one step will solve everything—and that we don’t lose sight of the effective public health tools we already have right now, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and washing our hands frequently.

Although there are many, many vaccines currently under investigation, none of them are ready to be given to the general public, SELF explained previously. Globally there are some in later stages of development, and one vaccine from Chinese company CanSino Biologics was approved by the Chinese military for limited use, according to the New York Times. But most are still in the early stages, including animal testing and early-phase human testing.

Right now the best guess for when we’ll have an effective vaccine in the U.S. is still what it was originally: 12 to 18 months from the start of the pandemic. But the mere development of the vaccine brings no guarantee that it will be available to the public at that point because it may take even more time to produce and distribute the vaccine widely.

Developing and distributing a new vaccine is an involved and quite lengthy process that, under usual circumstances, can take up to a decade, SELF reported previously, because it requires multiple phases of testing to ensure that the vaccine actually works and does so without serious side effects. To help that process along, some U.S. companies will start producing vaccines before there’s conclusive evidence that they work, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained recently. That won’t solve the problem entirely but could help reduce the amount of time that many people have to wait for the vaccine once it’s proven to be effective.

Finally, even once the vaccine is approved and ready to go, there are some unanswered questions about who will be “prioritized” to get the first doses, Science explains. For instance, the WHO recently released some initial guidance about this, which put health care workers, adults over age 65, and those in high-risk groups due to health issues right at the top of the list. And it’s an issue that a working group of the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) is currently grappling with. The group already identified some priority groups for a vaccine, including health care workers and those with existing health conditions but is now figuring out the prioritization of other groups, such as children and pregnant people.

So what are we supposed to do if a vaccine for COVID-19 isn’t the one-and-done answer we hoped it would be? “Do it all,” Ghebreyesus said repeatedly throughout the media briefing. “Testing, isolating and treating patients, and tracing and quarantining their contacts. Do it all,” he said. “Inform, empower, and listen to communities. Do it all. For individuals, it’s about keeping physical distance, wearing a mask, cleaning hands regularly, and coughing safely away from others. Do it all.”

It may be a little discouraging to hear that a vaccine may not magically solve everything. But it’s also a good reminder that we already have many of the most effective tools we need to keep people safe. Ultimately, Ghebreyesus said, “stopping outbreaks comes down to the basics of public health and disease control.”

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