President Biden had a little photo op at the White House this week, getting jabbed with a COVID-19 booster shot as photographers snapped away.
At one point, a reporter was able to ask the press-shy president a critical question.
“How many Americans need to be vaccinated for us to get back to normal?” said the reporter.
“97%, 98%,” Mr. Biden said. “I think we’ll get awful close. But I’m not the scientist. I think one thing is for certain. A quarter of the country can’t go unvaccinated and us not continue to have a problem.”
So there you have it. The “herd immunity” that America’s top scientists and immunologists claimed we could achieve is a mirage.
When the virus first emerged, “herd immunity” was all the rage. While experts didn’t know precisely how many Americans would need antibodies to reach such immunity, the number ranged from more than 50% of the population to upwards of 70%. Early in the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. immunologist, put the number at 60% to 70%, but in April, he started upping that number, saying in an interview with CNBC News that it would be “75, 80, 85 percent.”
But now, Mr. Biden says it’s nearly everyone who will need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity.
Top experts have been pushing the number higher and higher for months. Last month, “the Infectious Diseases Society of America estimated that delta had pushed the threshold for herd immunity to well over 80% and possibly close to 90%,” Bloomberg reported. “Public health officials like Anthony Fauci have drawn controversy by shifting the goalposts over the past year, increasing the number of people who need protection before hitting herd immunity. Meanwhile, vaccine hesitancy and supply issues mean most countries won’t get close to even the original numbers.”
“Will we get to herd immunity? No, very unlikely, by definition,” Greg Poland, director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told the news agency.
Mr. Poland said that herd immunity can’t be reached even with a vaccination rate of as high as 95%. “It is a neck and neck race between the development of ever more highly transmissible variants which develop the capacity to evade immunity and immunization rates,” he said.
Dr. Fauci, who had uttered the phrase for months, has moved away from promising herd immunity.
“People were getting confused and thinking you’re never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is,” he told The New York Times last month. “That’s why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense. I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”
Well, duh. But the top U.S. experts had been promising herd immunity for months. And while viruses are gonna’ virus, they apparently didn’t realize that mutations of COVID-19 would make herd immunity all but impossible, just the way the flu virus is.
The Times sought to explain why the estimates keep going up.
“That is because the initial calculations were based on the contagiousness of the original version of the virus. The predominant variant now circulating in the United States, called B.1.1.7 and first identified in Britain, is about 60% more transmissible,” the paper explained last month after Dr. Fauci announced he’d “stopped using herd immunity.”
“As a result, experts now calculate the herd immunity threshold to be at least 80%. If even more contagious variants develop, or if scientists find that immunized people can still transmit the virus, the calculation will have to be revised upward again,” said the paper.
So, bottom line, no one ever knew anything about herd immunity and whether it could ever be achieved.
At least Pfizer CEO and Chairman Albert Bourla is speaking plain English. He said this week it could be another year before life returns to normal, but even then, we’ll all likely need COVID-19 vaccine shots every year.
“I don’t think that this means that the variants will not continue coming, and I don’t think that this means that we should be able to live our lives without having vaccinations,” Bourla said. “The most likely scenario for me is that because the virus is spread all over the world, that it will continue seeing new variants that are coming out.”
“Also, we will have vaccines that will last at least a year, and I think the most likely scenario is annual vaccination,” he said.
This brings to mind an old headline: “Trump’s 15-day plan to slow the coronavirus’ spread is too short, experts say. Flattening the curve could take at least several more weeks.”
That was written March 24, 2020 — 554 days ago.
But at least Biden is finally acknowledging that herd immunity is a mirage.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.