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Vaccines v. Variants: When Can We Put The Pandemic Behind Us?

A New Delhi vaccination center on June 25
A New Delhi vaccination center on June 25
Carl-Johan Karlsson

As the first coronavirus wave finally abated late last spring, experts warned us that the pandemic was far from over. Second and third (and more) waves were likely, and new restrictions would be necessary to limit the death toll. There was only one sure way out of these pandemic times, a vaccine, which could take years to develop.

And yet today, despite the seemingly miraculous arrival of effective vaccines, and more than three billion doses already administered around the world, we still find ourselves asking the Question: When will it end?

New anxieties right now are being fueled by the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant, including in countries that are leading the vaccine race. In the UK, where nearly two-thirds of adults are fully vaccinated, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's "irreversible" roadmap to normality is looking increasingly blurred with 120,000 new COVID cases in the past week. In Israel, where more than 85% of those eligible are vaccinated, caseload levels have climbed this week to the highest since April, reports The Times of Israel.

The good news is that the virus is spreading mostly amongst young people, and studies suggest that most vaccines are highly effective against hospitalization from the Delta variant, which represents almost every current infection in the UK and the majority in Israel.

Still, even while hospitalizations are fewer, Israeli health officials report that half of new COVID-19 cases are, in fact, in vaccinated people.

So if the Delta variant more easily bypasses vaccines, but people get less sick, what does it mean for our Question about collectively bidding farewell to the pandemic?

Officials must continue to motivate enough people to get vaccinated.

The most immediate worry is of course that hospitalizations will begin to rise; after all, the symptoms of the new variant are different — more similar to those of the flu or even hay fever — and so the longer-term effects might also deviate from the initial COVID-19 strain.

But more likely perhaps, is a drawn-out battle between vaccines and new variants, or a combination of vaccination and continued social distancing measures. Indeed, many experts believe that vaccinations or lockdowns alone won't be enough to slow the spread of the contagious new variants.

In Australia, where strict lockdown measures, stringent border controls and efficient contact-tracing systems left the country largely detached from the pandemic, Delta variant cases have nonetheless ballooned in the last few weeks, forcing Sydney, Darwin, Perth and Brisbane into a new quarantine.

If a more holistic approach becomes the way, combining mass vaccination with restrictions to reduce the spread, policymakers face the same questions about how to best contain the virus: Can we go to the beach? How effective are masks? Simultaneously, officials must continue to motivate enough people to get vaccinated.

And of course, there are huge swaths of the world still mired in the pandemic, with scant access to effective vaccines. Strive Masiyiwa, the African Union special envoy leading efforts to procure COVID-19 vaccines for the continent, blasted Europe on Thursday, as Africa faces a third surge of infections. "Not one dose, not one vial, has left a European factory for Africa," Masiyawa said.

Meanwhile in France, like many other Western countries, vaccination rollouts seem to have reached a ceiling, with the daily number of people receiving their first dose having dropped to its lowest level since April, French daily Les Echos reports.

So it seems that the answer to when this will all be over is a matter of definition. As a complete eradication of the virus seems unlikely in the near future, the best case scenario is one where the virus exists among us, but doesn't make us severely ill. In such a case then, yes, things will go back to normal — but it will be a "normal" in which we're constantly aware that another pandemic is always just one cough away.

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