By Abigail Byrne
The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, a virus which we have now been feeling the effects of globally for the last year, has had large impacts on almost every country in the world. It has resulted in massive shifts in global economies, as governments struggle with lockdown measures that strive to reduce the continual spread of the virus. With the IMF estimating that the global economy has shrunk by 4.4% in 2020, the worst decline since the Great depression of the ‘30s, and the FTSE dropping by 14.3%, you could be forgiven for thinking everything is looking rather bleak. However, 2021 brings a little optimism, with stock markets responding positively to news of vaccines. As behavioural scientist Sarah Jones, co-lead of the global attitudes towards a COVID-19 vaccine survey commented, “For the first time since the pandemic began, I can sense that optimism is spreading faster than the virus,”
Vaccine optimism is sure to be a driving factor of our future financial conditions globally. However, despite the enthusiasm around vaccines, and vaccination programs ramping up at home and around the world, there are still many unknowns which will continue to contribute towards the turbulent economic narrative ahead of us.
As of the 11th of February 2021, more than 159 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine have been administered in 76 countries globally. Nevertheless, this does not mean life can return to normal quite yet. The subject of exactly what percentage of the population must be vaccinated before lockdown and social distancing restrictions can be lifted is a topic which is fiercely debated amongst scientific experts. Unknowns around whether an individual who has been vaccinated could still potentially spread the virus after inoculation mean that it is hard to predict exactly how populations will react until vaccination programs are well under way. However, there are cautious expectations that vaccinating around 70-85% of a population should allow for a return to relative normality.
Globally, it is already clear to see the varying efficiency with which countries are delivering inoculation programs, further heightened by unequal access to vaccines. There are stark differences between nations such as Israel which has administered doses to 68% of the adult population, in contrast to most countries which have not obtained vaccinations to even offer first jabs to their most elderly and vulnerable.
To vaccinate such a large percentage of the global population is sure to provide a wealth of logistical issues in the coming months. If global vaccination continues at its current average rate of 5.80 million jabs a day it will take an estimated 5.4 years to inoculate 75% of the global population with two-doses of a vaccine, achieving a significant level of global immunity. It is of course still early days for many countries’ vaccination programmes, with hopes that the pace will increase, especially with the addition of many more vaccine manufacturers ready to start producing jabs, at new breakneck speeds due to the urgency of the pandemic.
Opposing vaccine optimism is the presence of covid-19 mutations, which may dampen the effects of vaccines by evading recognition by the immune system. A variant identified in South Africa is a cause for significant concern, with lab assays finding that the mutations undermine the strength of the virus-inactivating antibodies which were produced by the immune system of patients who have received the Pfizer or Moderna RNA vaccines. A study, not yet peer reviewed, has also found evidence that Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine does not appear to offer protection against mild and moderate disease caused by the viral variant first identified in South Africa.
It is not surprising that as we start to vaccinate our populations, we are encountering mutations which threaten the effectiveness of the jabs. In a logic very similar to that which has created the medical crisis of superbugs with antibacterial resistance, vaccinations may be contributing to driving mutated viral strains. When an individual is infected with the virus their body mounts a response, if they are vaccinated their body has already been prepped to respond in a very efficient way as the immune system knows what identifiable sections of the virus look like. When viruses multiply they are produced with slight variations due to random mutations. If this random change in the virus happens to mean it can no longer be identified by the immune system, the virus is more likely to survive and go on to infect others with this newly mutated strain. As evidence grows that new mutated variants of the coronavirus can evade immunity produced by vaccines or previous infections, the idea of redesigning vaccines in response to these changes is gaining traction.
In the future there is a high possibility that vaccines against covid-19 will be updated periodically, as they currently are for influenza. Covid-19 may be monitored in centers similar to those which already exist to monitor new emerging flu strains, looking for genetic changes that might affect the vaccines effectiveness. It seems likely that the coronavirus will be reviewed annually for each hemisphere’s winter season, and changes made when a vaccine-evading strain has become widespread, as is currently done for influenza. It is not practical or possible to chase every new mutation which appears, but mutations of a magnitude liken to that of the covid-19 South Africa strain would likely inform a vaccine update.
It is thought that replacing the key targets for the vaccines – generally the coronavirus spike protein, which is essential for the virus’s entry into host cells – could be relatively easily swapped into the vaccine. However, for the time being experts tend to agree that the best way to fight the spread of the virus is to vaccinate as many people as possible with the vaccinations we currently have approved. It is more important to suppress the virus and get levels of infection down as low as possible.
Vaccine companies including Moderna have already started working on variant of its vaccine which will be better equipped to tackle these newly emerging strains by editing the spike protein to match with the mutations. However, Moderna bosses make sure to warn that changes in the protein may have knock on effects, and state “It’s not going to be as simple as [altering] an amino acid site and saying ‘okay we got it’.”
It is no secret that there are still many challenges to be overcome, clinical trials for new vaccines will become more complex as more of the population is vaccinated, and researchers do not know how well a patient will react to an updated vaccine if they have already received a first-generation vaccination. Despite the many uncertainties that lie ahead, with the vaccine rollout well underway in the UK and globally, it seems there is much greater certainty that there is hope for a brighter future. Although our situation remains precarious for now, with the progress that has been made with coronavirus vaccinations there is a sense that a global economic recovery will soon be possible.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.