Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Vaccines can only do so much. The rest is up to people.

Jackson State wide receiver J.J. Weeks, 19, closes his eyes as he gets a Pfizer shot at a vaccination site at the university in Jackson, Miss., on Aug. 3. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
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“Surprise!” This seems to be the unpleasant byword of the pandemic. Face masks aren’t necessary, we were told. Surprise, they are. The pandemic will end with vaccine herd immunity — surprise, not enough people got the shot. The infections are going way down — surprise, the delta variant is pushing them back up. The vaccines, described as up to 95 percent effective, were thought to be a ticket out of the pandemic. Now, surprise, not quite.

Certainly, hopes were sky-high that vaccines would lead to a “summer of joy and freedom,” as the White House put it, and that shots would be one-and-done, or two. But as Helen Branswell of STAT writes, “our soaring expectations for Covid-19 vaccines are in the process of sinking back to earth.” Rather than be disappointed at this latest vaccine twist, we should be realistic while demanding that people also use every other tool we have at hand against the virus. The research, development and production of vaccines against covid were a medical and logistical marvel. Never before have such potent vaccines come to the rescue so quickly, some of them using innovative genetic building blocks. They have already saved untold numbers of lives.

Studies continue to show the efficacy of the vaccines is waning against infection as time goes by. The latest was a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published Aug. 24 based on 4,217 front-line health-care workers in eight locations in six states, covering the period from the start of inoculation in December through Aug. 14. The study found that the vaccines were 91 percent effective in the months before the delta variant but only 66 percent in the period of delta’s predominance this summer. Separately, data collected by an app from more than 1 million users in Britain showed that the effectiveness of the Pfizer shot declined from 88 percent to 74 percent after five to six months, and the AstraZeneca vaccine from 77 percent to 67 percent after four to five months. The reasons are still a guess, but possibilities include the emergence of the super-transmissible delta variant, as well as the machinations of the human immune system. The good news, extremely important to remember, is that vaccine protection is holding up against severe disease, hospitalization and death. This was the main purpose and remains a vaccine win.

The dream that vaccines would immediately squelch the pandemic was unrealistic. Booster doses are probably necessary. The problem of vaccines losing their punch — and requiring a second or more doses — has been common with other diseases, including pertussis and measles. Fortunately, research suggests that vaccine boosters can dramatically raise antibodies against the coronavirus.

The fault here is not with the vaccines. It lies squarely on the shoulders of those who refuse to get vaccinated, and all those — including some reckless political leaders — who refuse to embrace other disease-fighting tools that are critical: face masks, improved ventilation, good hygiene, distancing and testing. Vaccines can do only so much, because there is no such thing as an inoculation against human obstinacy.