I am really sorry to have to be saying this, but we won’t be back to normal by spring. We may be on the way but we wont be there. Let me try to explain why. Please remember I am an astrophysicist not a biologist, I have done my best to check the biology parts of this but mostly this is logic, production and logistics.
Yesterday a vaccine announced it was effective. So far so good, but, this vaccine and several others that look equally promising are still in testing. This article has a nice illustration of the stages of testing and how long they would usually take.
As you can see from that article 11 vaccines are at the same stage of testing. Usually only a very small percentage of vaccines that go into phase 3 testing actually make it into production. The sources I have seen say less than 20% make it, that would be 2 or 3 of those 11. However let us say that this time will be different and these will make it. The companies making the vaccines are taking exactly that gamble and already producing some vaccines to be shipped as soon as they are licensed.
If they are given their license in this country our government has a pre-order in with many companies so should get deliveries pretty soon after approval. At the moment no results have been reviewed and no one is close to a license. The vaccines have to be kept at -70C throughout the shipping and distribution process, so there may be some issues moving them. Hoping some centers will have them ready to use a week after licensing is possible, if a little optimistic, and that won’t be every doctor having some, that will likely be some sort hub with them. Once we reach this stage teams can start to vaccinate people. This will need 2 doses a month apart and immunity takes 2 weeks from the second dose. The first batch will cover 10 million to 30million people depending on which vaccine gets licensed first as we have different size orders with different companies. Assuming of course the immediately supply our full order (if we can store and move the whole order too).
So in theory our first batch of people might have immunity about 8 weeks after the first vaccine has been licensed, 2 weeks to get set and then 6 weeks to have completed the course and gained immunity. Current gossip is suggesting first vaccinations around Christmas so that would give immunity around the middle of February. These people are likely to be the most vulnerable. They are likely to get the vaccine first as there is no evidence the vaccine stops the spread of the disease only the manifestation of it. It can stop people getting sick but not stop them spreading it. This is not ideal, we would usually want to stop the people most likely to spread the virus from spreading it but as this vaccine may not do that we have to take the slower approach of reducing how many it kills or leaves with long term health problems. Unfortunately we can’t predict which young healthy people will get long covid so initially they will be unprotected and will need to maintain all precautions.
During the weeks our first batch of vaccinated people are developing immunity hopefully more vaccines will be being delivered. The companies are talking about producing billions of doses a year. That sounds great but even with every company in the running producing a billion doses (which is unlikely remember most vaccines fail final trials) the world population is 7.8billion, to cover everyone would need about 16billion doses. That is flat out for all 11 vaccines. It will take time to get enough doses to have a significant impact on case numbers. Realistically I can’t see most of us getting our first dose before March or April. I think that may be wildly optimistic even allowing for the probability that the wealthier countries will get them first (the ethics of that may be another discussion). If we did all get a first dose in March we would not be safe until May at the earliest. When I say safe, I mean we would know Covid wouldn’t kill us, it doesn’t mean we couldn’t spread Covid to someone who hadn’t been vaccinated yet, or for medical reasons can’t be. The fact we can still spread it may mean we will still need masks and distancing by the summer.
I really don’t want to depress people. These vaccines are amazing. The work that has gone into getting them so soon is incredible. Really a lot of people have worked their socks off to make this happen. It is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we are not there yet. Things will not magically be all fixed in the next few weeks.
Here is another article which might give you some more information on what this does and doesn’t mean for us now.
Please do celebrate the progress, celebrate the doctors, the scientists, the lab workers, the data analysts and the people who have risked their bodies to test these vaccines. They are doing amazing work. Please also stay aware of the real timelines here. Don’t assume it will all be over by Christmas, especially not this Christmas. Please also remember time never goes back, we are going forward to normal, it may always be a little different but different can be good. If you know me, you know how much I hate change but even I can see some good things have come from this pandemic and I am still hopeful there is more good to come.