Tuesday, May 18, 2021 | Shawwal 5, 1442 H
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Will COVID-19 vaccine end need for masks, social distancing

For months, researchers and companies around the world have been striving to develop a vaccine that could ultimately help end the COVID-19 pandemic. However, will the vaccine put an end to the need to wear masks, physical distancing and other effective interventions undertaken to slow the spread of the coronavirus? I think it will not, as such measures will last longer and may be for sometime.

At least as a community, we need to realize that vaccine wouldn’t change anyone’s behaviour. We still need to use it in conjunction with masks, social distancing and hand hygiene, especially at the early stages of vaccination and until we have more information about how such vaccine affect transmission.

What I am trying to express here is that, for instance the effectiveness of seasonal influenza vaccines has ranged from 60 per cent at best to 10 per cent at worst in recent years. In other words, even if everyone is vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccines, this may not be sufficient to prevent the virus from spreading.

We must realize that after agreeing that these vaccines are safe and effective, scientists will still need time to monitor the effectiveness, or the level of protection, the vaccines can actually provide. Perhaps we might stop here at this point, as we certainly hope that the vaccine will work well enough to prevent patients from contracting the disease, but will it be good enough to prevent them from spreading the virus?

The vaccine may produce an immune response that does not completely block the virus, but rather dampen it enough that the patient does not have symptoms. It may not protect everyone equally. So, there may be marked differences in how children, teens, adults and the elderly respond to the vaccine. The question that will still need to be answered after the vaccines are launched is whether such vaccine will provide long-term protection against the COVID-19?

We all hear that when you are infected with the coronavirus, you may develop immunity, but perhaps not for long. I think what you can assume here is that, if the virus does not give you long-term immune responses, then the vaccine may not give long-term immune responses as well. Perhaps, it would be wise to stick to our masks besides taking the vaccine at least through much of 2021. It will take all sorts of efforts to reduce transmission in the community, by masks, social distancing and an effective vaccine.

It does not mean that the vaccine is useless. The goal of the vaccine is not to completely prevent infection, but to reduce disease severity. We want more people to get less sick from COVID-19. This is also what the flu shot does every year.

Absolutely in the coming time and hopefully after vaccine production, scientists will need to study more about the vaccines and see if it can provide lifelong protection, as is the case with vaccines against measles for instance, or temporary protection as with influenza vaccines that people as we know taking it once a year.

At the end, the coronavirus vaccine will come and it will help, but even then the virus may not disappear completely. May be beside vaccine, masking and physical distancing could close the gap in reducing community transmission for a while as the scientists keep learning new thing about the virus.

Dr Yousuf Ali al Mulla, MD, Ministry of Health, is a medical innovator and educator. For any queries regarding the content of the column he can be contacted at: dryusufalmulla@gmail.com

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