The number of global vaccinations against Covid-19 has exceeded the total number of confirmed cases, a remarkable moment that highlights the progress being made to contain the pandemic, despite growing concern over the threat of new variants.
According to the Financial Times vaccine tracker, the number of doses administered approached 104 million on Wednesday (3), while the number of confirmed cases was just over 103 million.
Vaccination rates are accelerating rapidly, but the increase in Covid-19 cases is slowing, due to measures other than vaccines, as they have not yet affected transmission in most places.
Data is incomplete due to the fragmented nature of the reports – and the actual number of infections is likely to be several times greater than that verified by diagnostic tests.
“The fact that we have so many vaccines is very good news that has been given to us in pieces. This moment brings together the facts, showing how fast we are going and how far we are,” said Michael Head, researcher in global health. at the University of Southampton.
Health experts attribute the slow growth in infections to constant lockdowns and measures of social distancing, with a possible contribution from acquired immunity against previous infections in some places.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said new infection rates peaked around the world in early January and were now back to last October’s level.
Israel is the only country where vaccines are already reducing transmission because the inoculation was done more intensively and faster than anywhere else in the world. “There is evidence from Israel that vaccination is starting to reduce infections,” Head said.
But vaccines will soon make a big difference in transmission, at least in wealthy countries, where billions of doses will be available in the coming months, after weeks of discussions – especially in the European Union – over supplies.
Data released by the University of Oxford on Monday (1st) suggests that its vaccine developed with AstraZeneca would reduce transmission by 67%. Experts hope other major vaccines, such as those manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Novavax, and Johnson & Johnson, will have similar effects, although solid data is not yet available.
“A year ago, I couldn’t imagine that we would have so many effective vaccines. It’s a real testament to human ingenuity, ”said Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.
For Sean Marett, commercial director of BioNTech, the pioneer of the vaccine against Covid-19, “there will be enough doses in the second half of this year to vaccinate everyone in the industrialized world who wants to be vaccinated.”
However, one threat of progress is the emergence of new variants of the virus that appear more frequently as cases increase. Some are more infectious – and less likely to be neutralized by the immune system of people who have previously been vaccinated or infected with older forms of the virus.
Vaccine makers say current products continue to work against all mutations detected so far, although less effectively against some, like the new South African strain. They also stress that vaccines can be changed quickly, if necessary, to respond to new mutations, increasing the costly prospect that annual or biennial doses will be required in the future.
It is not known how long it will take to vaccinate the whole world. Vaccine purchases confirmed for Covid-19 reach 7.2 billion doses, and 5.3 billion of them were purchased by high and upper middle income countries, according to the Duke University Center for Global Health Innovation. Most of these vaccines will require two doses.
The Wellcome Trust estimates that it won’t be until 2023 or 2024 that anyone who needs a vaccine will be able to get one. Others think it might be sooner than that if rich countries and organizations overdose the poorest.
Another potential problem is reluctance about vaccination and especially whether a sufficient number of young adults, who know their risk of requiring intensive treatment or dying from Covid is very low, will agree to be vaccinated.
Professor Sridhar said one way to convince young people to get vaccinated – and to help achieve herd immunity – would be to show the significant risks of developing debilitating symptoms of “lasting Covid” in patients who do not did not get seriously ill.
“Two million people around the world have died in this pandemic,” she said. “I am optimistic that we can get to the end without 2 million more deaths.”
Translation by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves