The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Chief Scientist Dr. Soumya Swaminathan expressed skepticism over what exactly the coronavirus vaccine actually does with regards to transmissibility while speaking during a WHO press briefing Monday.
A reporter asked if someone who was traveling from overseas and had received the vaccine would pose a risk for community transmission if they visited a place where there is limited community spread.
“I think what we are learning now and continue to wait for more results from vaccine trials, is to really understand if these vaccines, apart from preventing symptomatic disease and severe disease and deaths, whether they are also going to reduce infections or prevent people from getting infected with the virus, preventing them from passing it on or transmitting it to other people,” Swaminathan said.
“I don’t believe we have the evidence on any of the vaccines to be confident that it’s going to prevent people from actually getting the infection and therefore being able to pass it on”, says WHO Chief Scientist @doctorsoumya pic.twitter.com/QdTvzj7Nyd
— Disclose.tv ???? (@disclosetv) December 28, 2020
“At the moment I don’t believe we have the evidence on any of the vaccines to be confident that it’s going to prevent people from actually getting the infection and therefore being able to pass it on,” Swaminathan said. “I think until we know we know more, we need to assume that people who have been vaccinated need to take the same precautions until there’s a certain level of herd immunity that has been built in the population.”
Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program expressed a similar sentiment, noting that the main goal of the vaccine as of now is to prevent widespread death.
“I think it is important that we also reflect on the main objective of the vaccine and the first rollout will be to prevent severe illness, prevent deaths, to protect front line health workers and to protect the most vulnerable people in our society.”
Ryan noted that when it comes to transmissibility, there is just not enough information to make a conclusive determination. (RELATED: POLL: Despite Willingness To Get The Coronavirus Vaccine, Majority Of Americans Are Worried About Side Effects)
“We just don’t know enough yet about the length of protection and other things to be absolutely able to predict that. I think we should be able to get good control of the virus.”
“A decision then to move towards elimination or eradication of the virus requires a much higher degree of efficiency and effectiveness in a vaccination program and all of the other control measures,” Ryan said. “The likely scenario is that the virus will become … another endemic virus which will remain somewhat of a threat but a low-level threat because of the global vaccination program. It remains to be seen how well the vaccines are taken up.”
“The existence of a vaccine even at high efficacy is no guarantee at eliminating or eradicating an infectious disease,” he added, reiterating that the focus of the vaccine is to prevent deaths.
There is still much uncertainty over what the vaccine will accomplish, with the Mayo Clinic noting that getting a vaccine could help create an antibody response in your body should you get infected and “might help protect people around you.”
Pfizer and Moderna both received FDA Emergency Use Authorization after their trials showed their vaccines had efficacy rates of 95% and 94.1% respectively in preventing new infections in those vaccinated. Moderna’s vaccine also was shown to prevent severe coronavirus symptoms, according to The New York Times (NYT). However, it is unclear whether the vaccines have any effects on transmissibility.
Both trials only tracked how many participants who were vaccinated became sick with COVID-19. The trials did not track whether someone could get vaccinated, become infected, not develop symptoms and ultimately pass it on to someone else without knowing it, according to the NYT.
“A lot of people are thinking that once they get vaccinated, they’re not going to have to wear masks anymore,” Michal Tal, an immunologist at Stanford University said, according to the NYT. “It’s really going to be critical for them to know if they have to keep wearing masks, because they could still be contagious.”