Dec. 29 (UPI) — Despite early hopes that 2021 would see the end of the COVID-19 era, the year turned out to be a virtual repeat of 2020 — at least insofar as the coronavirus’ continued presence worldwide and its significant impact on just about every imaginable level.
The main difference between 2020 and 2021 was clear — vaccinations. The first COVID-19 vaccines were given emergency approval in December 2020 and Americans by the millions were inoculated over the first several months of 2021.
While many pinned their hopes of ending the global health emergency on the vaccines, things didn’t turn out that way — mainly because of rapidly mutating variants, vaccine inequity in poorer countries and a share of the population who still refuse to get vaccinated.
Those are the main reasons, experts say, why at the dawn of 2022 we’re still locked in a serious fight with the virus.
Since the first person was vaccinated in Britain a year ago, more than 8.7 billion doses have since been administered in 184 countries at a rate of about 40 million doses per day, according to data collected by Bloomberg.
Experts project that roughly 75% of the global population will have received at least one dose in about four months. Scientists in the field have said they’d expect to see global herd immunity — a point at which the virus loses most of its ability to grow rapidly because there are too many vaccinated people — when between 70% and 75% have received the vaccine.
Until then, issues such as unequal distribution, hesitancy and political opposition and new variants will force governments and scientists to adapt in 2022 to stem the spread of the virus.
Most nations distributed the vaccines on a rolling basis, making them available to vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the immunocompromised and people at high risk. File Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI
Britain became the first nation to administer a COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 8, 2020, as Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old grandmother, received her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
By February, the U.S. regulators had approved two more vaccines, from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. Britain later approved AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which still has not been authorized in the United States.
Other nations like China, India and Russia developed and distributed their own vaccines.
Most nations distributed the vaccines on a rolling basis, making them available to vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the immunocompromised and people at high risk such as healthcare workers before making them available to all adults, and eventually most children.
Many vaccine-producing nations have banded together via the World Health Organization’s COVAX program to distribute vaccines worldwide to poorer countries, listing nine vaccines for emergency use as of this month.
Earlier this year, leaders had pledged to donate a total of 1 billion vaccines through COVAX, but the WHO warned at the time that the virus is spreading faster than the global distribution of vaccines. It said 11 billion doses were needed to end the pandemic by the 2022 Group of Seven summit.
In September, the United States pledged to double its global vaccine shipments and provide 1 billion vaccines and urged other nations to follow suit.
A few hundred people demonstrate at City Hall in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on September 8 to protest vaccine mandates. File Photo by Heinz Ruckemann/UPI
Vaccine hesitancy and political weaponization
While vaccines rolled out fairly quickly, many nations struggled to inoculate large portions of their population after the initial adoption. Part of the reason was a hesitancy and outright refusal in some corners of the world.
In the United States, the nation fell short of President Joe Biden’s goal to have 70% of all Americans receive at least one dose by July 4. The country had reached just 67.1% at the deadline.
Seeking to increase vaccination rates, Biden announced a series of mandates — beginning in September, requiring vaccinations for all federal workers and contractors.
However, the mandates faced strong opposition from unions and Republican politicians such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Compounding the problem were federal judges who blocked Biden’s mandates for federal contractors and healthcare workers.
The Senate also voted to nullify another mandate for private businesses with more than 100 workers.
Vaccine requirements in other countries have also drawn protests. Demonstrators in Italy took to the streets to block traffic in Rome, and workers went on strike in October to oppose the government’s “Green Pass,” which required vaccination or a negative test to work.
In another episode, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was struck by gravel thrown by a protester opposed to “vaccine passports” and mask mandates.
Refusal to take the vaccine has often been seen along political party lines — as conservatives aligned with the Republican Party are mostly the ones opposing the COVID-19 shots. During a recent speaking event, former President Donald Trump was booed by his own supporters when he said he’d received a booster shot.
Michael Neblo, professor of political science at Ohio State University and co-author of the paper “A Plague on Politics? The COVID Crisis, Expertise, and the Future of Legitimation,” told UPI that vaccine opposition is largely a result of conflict between government restrictions and populism.
“On the one hand, modern mass government requires more and more expertise to coordinate action and keep society healthy and efficient,” Neblo said. “On the other hand — at least in developed democracies — there’s this notion of distrust and even resentment toward technocrats and the thought that they are at best biased and at worst completely mistake their technical expertise for political, moral and value-oriented expertise.”
Notably, in the United States, Neblo said, Trump’s efforts to downplay the threat of the virus provides political incentive to oppose the vaccine — in part to deny President Joe Biden credit for helping to end the pandemic.
“It’s a combination between this kind of sincere long-standing source of push back and hesitancy regarding technocratic and in particular medical government intervention, interacting with the sort of complicated political path dependency of the start of the pandemic and then the switch over of administrations that is roughly coincident with the development of the vaccines,” he said.
Earlier this month, Trump said he’d received the vaccine and a booster shot and urged the crowd to “take credit” for the development of the vaccines under his administration.
“I think this would have been the Spanish Flu of 1917 … This was going to ravage the country, far beyond what it is right now,” he said.
Trump, though, also stated that he’s opposed to vaccine mandates — but also scolded crowd members who booed, saying that “you’re playing right into their hands.”
File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Vaccine expansion and the future
As the pandemic dragged on in 2021 — with new variants like Delta and Omicron and the vaccines’ effectiveness beginning to wane — nations have begun to explore providing additional booster shots and expanding vaccine eligibility for children.
Israel opened its booster shot campaign by providing a third shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech to people over 60 when data indicated that the initial vaccine doses were 39% effective in Israel amid the spread of the Delta variant.
Citing a lack of global vaccine equity, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged a temporary booster moratorium in August.
In the United States, expansion of vaccine eligibility began with children aged 5-11 being permitted to receive Pfizer’s COVID-19 on Nov. 2, while booster doses were approved for all adults in the United States at the end of November. Experts also said it’s safe to mix and match vaccines.
While booster doses appeared largely effective in containing the Delta variant, vaccine manufacturers have expressed interest in developing new formulations specifically to counteract the Omicron variant. Some are already developing them.
British researchers announced earlier this month that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines produce substantially fewer antibodies to fight off the Omicron variant than they do against other variants.
However, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said boosters should provide sufficient coverage against the new variant.
“Our booster vaccine regimens work against Omicron,” Fauci said. “At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster. The message remains clear: If you are unvaccinated, get vaccinated. Particularly in the arena of Omicron, if you are fully vaccinated, get your booster shot.”
Dr. Kawsar Talaat, an assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins University, says she believes that new vaccines will be necessary to resist Omicron and future variants. Moreover, she said it’s fairly simple to alter the vaccines from a scientific standpoint, but added that there are logistical hurdles that could prolong the process.
“It’s relatively easy to switch out the mRNA for the original strain and put in the mRNA for Omicron,” she told UPI. “The complexities then come from making sure you shut down your production, switch over to the new RNA and make sure there’s no contamination.
“We know that can take some time.”