Measles’ herd immunity occurs at about 95% vaccination rates, will COVID be the same? Is there a nastier mutation after Delta?
While some leaders are excelling at communicating the constantly changing crisis, others seem to be constantly on catchup; are we expecting too much of our communicators?
Helping sort the facts, Dr Kirsty Short is a virologist at the University of Queensland.
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We need to be starting to change our point of view, in that this is not a once in a lifetime event or once in every event, this is a viral pandemic. Viral pandemics happen, they will continue to happen, so we need to improve her pandemic preparedness.
So, the Delta variant emerged because of the massive number of mutations. Is it logical, using Darwinian evolution if you like, that there is a high risk of another and nastiest strain? Maybe more infectious or less responsive to vaccines?
So, when we take the idea of evolution and apply it to virology, what it tells us is that, okay, mutations will emerge in the virus at random. That’s what a virus does, it will just randomly mutate. Now, that mutation can be detrimental to the virus, so actually, that can make the virus “weaker”. And if that’s the case, there’s no selective advantage for the virus to have that mutation, so it’s quickly lost from the population.
But if the mutation confers what we call a selective advantage, that virus is selected for and becomes the dominant isolate. And such selective advantages include things like increased transmissibility, and the ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity.
So, the chief medical officers in each state and nationally would be aware of this because they have good virologists like yourself telling them this. So why aren’t we so aware of that? Why isn’t that part of the conversation?
I think it is part of the conversation, but the point is the conversation around this virus is very, very busy.
Well, it doesn’t make sense, because if that was the case, if people were aware in their planning, they were aware that a Delta variant would emerge that was nastier than what we were used to, Scott Morrison would have been much more focused on getting the vaccine into Australia much faster, and yet it’s generally accepted, and he’s agreed, that he was slow off the mark?
Well, yes and no. Even if it was 100% crystal clear that a viral variant would emerge that was more transmissible, and there’s always an element of luck and chance in this process because evolution is a chance process in terms of how the variants emerge, it still wouldn’t necessarily change the situation. It’s a matter of balancing your national needs, I guess, in terms of vaccination, with your international obligations and the ability you to protect your national population on an international level.
So, it’s a really, really complex equation. And I think what we’ve got to remember is that people weren’t necessarily thinking about a pandemic like this. I think for those of us who’ve worked in infectious disease, we’ve been saying for many years, “The next pandemic will come. The next pandemic will come. The next pandemic will come.” But I think until it hit, a lot of people just didn’t realise how serious it would be, and how many aspects of our way in life, it would change.
What you say is very true. And in fact, when I was a journalist, I was doing a story on superbugs, and the prediction was it would be a bacterium that would be resistant to penicillin, and it’s turned out to be a virus. The mystery to me is why Scott Morrison didn’t act faster earlier so that it didn’t get caught with people like Kevin Rudd ringing the head guy at Pfizer and things like that.
Yeah. I feel really sorry for all the politicians, around the world, who’ve had to deal with this COVID-19 challenge because no matter your political tendencies, whether you use swing left or right or you’re a central politician, this is not something that you were explicitly trained in; this pandemic management, this idea of having to make essentially a life and death decisions with very, very little information. So, I think, even though we can go back and say, retrospectively, “Yes, these are some things that Australia should have done better,” I think that sort of retrospective analysis is only constructive if it’s framed in a “What are we going to do for the future, in terms of protecting Australia from a pandemic like this again?” And that’s what we really need to be looking at.
So, with the measles disease, the vaccination rate that is considered herd immunity is 95% or above. Are we going to be ending up with 90%, 95% vaccination for this, to get herd immunity?
The actual percentage that we’re going to need for the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine for herd immunity is difficult to predict. The current estimates say around 80-90%, but there’s a lot of things that factor into that, that we don’t know about. And we’ve got to always keep this in mind, this is a novel virus, so we’re just learning new things every time. So, it’s very, very difficult now to get an exact percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated for herd immunity because we’ve got a lot of unknowns. That’s why the main message now is, we’ll just aim to get as many people vaccinated as possible, and that’s going to give us the greatest benefit.
So, is the reason that we require north of 95% vaccination rate for herd immunity in measles is because it’s more infectious than Coronavirus? Is that correct?
That’s correct. Measles is highly, highly infectious. So, it is much more infectious than SARS-CoV-2. But again, for SARS-CoV-2, we may end up needing 90% vaccine-induced herd immunity. It’s just difficult to say.
Right. So, with the measles vaccine in Australia, there is no jab, no pay, in relation to child benefits and so on. So, do you think ultimately while the conversation hasn’t turned to that yet, that we are going to end up with pretty rigorous pressure on people to get vaccinated, including things like no jab, no job, no jab, no pay, et cetera?
So, the idea that there will be requirements for the population to be vaccinated is not new. We’ve had that for a long time. For example, if I’m going to be working with human samples, I require a hepatitis B vaccination to protect myself. If you travel to South America and want to come back to Australia, you require a yellow fever vaccination. So, it’s not a new concept. It’s just, we can’t really start discussing that at the moment in Australia, because you could only start having those discussions when everybody who wants to be vaccinated has been offered a vaccine. And unfortunately, in Australia, there are still a lot of people who want to be vaccinated but haven’t been able to have access to a vaccine.
Dr Kirsty Short. Very interesting, thank you very much.
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