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Don’t Bet on a Vaccine

Don’t Bet on a Vaccine

If we get one, great. But here’s why we can’t count on it and what that means.

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Biologist Paul Ewald notes earlier virus vaccine successes came easier. ‘We are now left with the more wily ones which will probably evade our vaccination efforts.’ Photo of the virus causing COVID-19: Shutterstock.

Every day politicians promise eventual relief from the threat of COVID-19 with a vaccine. An unprecedented scientific race to develop more than 100 of them is now underway. But don’t roll up your sleeve yet. Any promise of a technical solution for a global pandemic remains a great gamble for a variety of reasons.

So we had better develop a robust Plan B: Get very good at living with the coronavirus in our midst, keeping large outbreaks to a minimum. The key to this, lacking a super effective vaccine, is: test, trace and isolate. Repeat. Repeat. And repeat again. We have the means to do this now, and it should become our way of life for many months, and likely years, to come.

Why should we be wary of the promise a vaccine will deliver us any time soon from the coronavirus?

Some viruses are more ‘wily’ than others. Vaccines are artificial tools to confer immunity to diseases. Instead of waiting for natural immunity and disease cycles to do the often deadly and random job, our civilization now depends on the efficiency of vaccines. Immunization is as much a part of modern civilization as the highway.

Vaccines, however, have their limits and can also suffer from diminishing returns. The evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald has noted that humans have used vaccines for the last 200 years to conquer the easiest adversaries: measles, diptheria, rabies, polio and smallpox. “We are now left with the more wily ones which will probably evade our vaccination efforts by changing their coats.” Malaria and viruses like HIV are masters at evading the immune system.

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