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PHOTO REUTERS
PHOTO REUTERS
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Maximize the vaccine

  • As herd immunity comes nearer, inoculate where it will do the most good.

A new strain of the coronavirus is preliminarily and tentatively estimated to be 50% more transmissible than the current strain. This will be yet more incentive for those already highly motivated not to spread or catch it. Nobody really knows what “50% more" means in this context, but all the same social distancing and mask-wearing recommendations apply. If it takes 50% more diligence to achieve the same virus-suppressing effect, you see the problem: Many people already find the current level of diligence unsustainable or not worth their effort.

It is pretty apparent that, in countries where social distancing cannot be enforced by bayonet or mega-Trumpian border control, cases are growing faster than hospital capacity. The vaccine has not (contrary to my hope) caused many to redouble their efforts with a light at the end of the tunnel. Millions who know better than ever now that most cases are mild or symptomless seem to be telling themselves, with the elderly being vaccinated, their own job is done.

Also Read | What's got Indians excited about Covid shot

A typical sentence since last summer has been: I went to the grocery store and everybody was wearing a mask. The first part of the sentence is the problematic part. People are crowding together again. A decline in social distancing has defeated an increase in mask wearing.

Celebrity is fickle even if you’re a coronavirus mutation. By July, the dominant variant in the U.S. and Europe had become different from the Chinese strain that served as the basis for our then-hatching vaccines. As it turns out, the vaccines nevertheless are potent against the “G" strain and likely to be against the celebrated new mutation from the U.K. But it won’t be true of future variants. Once a vaccine starts going into millions of arms, that’s when selective pressure ramps up on a virus to defeat our vaccines. Interestingly, though scientists aren’t sure whether natural or artificial vaccination confers better immunity, they’re pretty sure the natural kind will prove more robust against evolution because it responds to a broader diversity of virus features.

More information is always helpful. Multiple experts, in honor of the newly recognized variant, want accelerated genomic sampling to hunt for new strains. Great idea. But it does underline our odd indifference toward measuring current spread accurately. Joe Biden, the Brits and others suddenly are realizing their dainty and over-categorizing answers about who should get the vaccine first are slowing its delivery. Also hurting is the likelihood that one-third of people soon to be lining up will already have been vaccinated by nature, many of them not knowing it.

Sen. Rand Paul was assailed for tweeting that his own natural infection was more than 99% protective against future illness, compared with 94.5% for a vaccine. He was not recommending people go out and indiscriminately spread the disease. But once you accept that we’re not just one or two preachments away from solving the problem of Covid with mask-wearing, it’s time to be grateful for the one upside of infection. “Herd immunity" was a taboo term when paired with the word “strategy" but needs to rehabilitated now as a description of the goal that both vaccine and natural spread are helping us achieve.

The U.S. will soon reliably be vaccinating a million people a day but natural infections, by conservative estimate, were already putting a million a day in the U.S. on the path to natural immunity, though only a fifth of them showed up for testing.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

Either kind of immune response is considered almost sure to prevent serious illness from future infection. Less certain is whether either also prevents transmission. But as epidemiologists such as Yale’s Harvey Risch and Brown’s Ashish Jha independently predicted, new cases in the Dakotas are starting to fall precipitously with perhaps half their populations having experienced Covid 19.

The practical implications are obvious. Don’t spend vaccine in the short term on people who have already been exposed if at all possible. A second implication: Unlike other countries, the U.S. has been strangely resolute in pretending that “confirmed cases" are the measure of the epidemic. Seldom has there been a clearer test of how the media sets the agenda for politicians. The press repeats this misleading statistic a thousand times a day to no real purpose, leaving us only less certain where we stand in the herd-immunity race. Underplaying the disease’s true prevalence, we have (without realizing it) conditioned people to be less careful even as we preach at them to be more careful. We cause them to underestimate their exposure risk and overestimate their death risk. Now we’ve put ourselves in the weird position of being unready to use vaccines optimally to stop the epidemic as soon as possible. We find it hard even to admit to ourselves that natural immunity is helping to bring our goal within reach.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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