COVID-19 herd immunity v. learning to live with the virus

S A Madhi


Mutations of SARS-CoV-2 have been associated with increased transmissibility and occasionally reduced sensitivity to neutralising antibody activity induced by past ancestry virus infection or current COVID-19 vaccines. Nevertheless, COVID-19 vaccines have consistently demonstrated high efficacy and effectiveness against COVID-19 severe disease, hospitalisation and death, including disease caused by designated variants of concern. In contrast, COVID-19 vaccines are more heterogeneous in reducing the risk of infection and mild COVID19, and are modestly effective in interrupting virus transmission. Ongoing mutations of SARS-CoV-2 resulting in increased transmissibility and relative evasion of neutralising antibody activity induced by past virus infection or COVID-19 vaccines are likely. The duration of protection induced by COVID-19 vaccines is modelled to be relatively short in protecting against infection and mild COVID-19, but is likely to be 2 - 3 years against severe disease. Current experience from the UK and Israel demonstrates that even with high levels of COVID19 vaccine coverage (>85% of the adult population), resurgences with new variants of concern remain a strong probability. Nevertheless, such resurgences are not mirrored by high rates of hospitalisation and death compared with what was experienced in relatively COVID-19 vaccine-naive populations. Even though COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to result in a herd immunity state, their ability to protect against severe COVID-19 and death could allow for a return to normalcy once a large enough proportion of the adult population in a country has been vaccinated.

Author's affiliations

S A Madhi, South African Medical Research Council Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytical Research Unit, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa; and African Leadership in Vaccinology Expertise, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

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COVID-19; Herd immunity; Variants of concern; Vaccines

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2021;111(9):852-856. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2021.v111i9.16005

Article History

Date submitted: 2021-08-05
Date published: 2021-08-05

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