As an anti-pandemic tool, vaccines have turned out to be more mirage than oasis

August 26, 2021

Stephen Gowans

For various reasons, the United States has a predilection for tackling problems with techno-solutions that offer profit-making opportunities to private industry. In the realm of pandemics, the preferred solution is vaccines.

Consistent with this bias, vaccines were offered as the “exit strategy” from the pandemic. In November, Anthony Fauci, referring to vaccines, announced that “The calvary is coming.”

With more than half of year of experience with vaccines, it’s clear that immunizations are not an oasis, but are more a mirage.

I’ve gathered below figures from Our World in Data for eight countries. Four of the countries—China, New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea—have pursued elimination strategies to drive infection rates to zero through public health and social measures. The other four—the USA, Israel, UK, and Canada—have invested heavily in vaccines, treating inoculations as an escape route from lockdowns, masking, and other public health measures.

All countries examined here have seen the number of deaths per million increase over the same period last year, despite Fauci’s promised arrival of the vaccine cavalry. (China and New Zealand, are exceptions. Deaths per million in these two countries have remained at zero.)

Of the eight countries, the United States has the highest number of deaths per million, up 19 percent over this time last year, though half the population is fully vaccinated. The calvary has arrived, and more people are dying.

New Zealand, South Korea, and Australia, which have pursued a Covid elimination strategy based on public health and social measures,  have comparatively low numbers of deaths per million, and at the same time, comparatively low levels of vaccination—half that or less of the US rate, and many times less than the rates for Canada, the UK, and Israel. Even so, their deaths per million are much lower than those of the highly vaccinated countries.

China, which is peerless in pandemic control, has pursued a zero-Covid strategy along with a robust vaccination campaign.

The comparative experience of the eight countries is consistent with the view of the World Health Organization that vaccines alone cannot bring the pandemic to an end, and that public health and social measures—specifically, test, trace, isolate, and support—are also required. 

Israel is a case in point. It replaced public health and social measures with a vigorous vaccination program. Eight of 10 Israeli adults have received two shots of Pfizer’s vaccine, and more than half the country’s seniors have received three. Despite this, Israel has a high rate of Covid-19 deaths, exceeded only by the United States of the eight countries considered here. The rate is almost double what it was last year at this time, when there were no vaccines.

The preferred explanation of the fact that more people are dying, despite the arrival of Fauci’s cavalry, is that the delta variant has become dominant and it is more contagious that its predecessors. An alternative explanation is that when you lift public health and social measures, more people get sick and die.

The idea that vaccines can be a replacement for public health and social measures is false. Countries that are relying on vaccination programs in place of programs of test, trace, isolate, and support, are faring poorly in minimizing deaths, while countries that emphasize these measures are doing well, regardless of their level of vaccination.

These data suggest, then, that the effects of vaccine programs in the project of ending the pandemic may be secondary to the more significant effect of public health and social measures.

Cuba and Vietnam, two countries that held infections to low levels for many months by pursuing elimination strategies, are now experiencing high numbers of deaths per million, after relaxing pandemic control measures. Both countries had zero deaths per million last year at this time. Today, their numbers exceed that of the United States:

  • Cuba, 7.14
  • Vietnam, 3.71

Cuba is fighting back with domestically produced vaccines, to little avail. Deaths have remained stubbornly high through August.

Based on the analysis above, it’s doubtful that Cuba will be able to bring its outbreak under control without returning to the robust public health and social measures that previously served it well. Whether this option is feasible, in light of the country’s economic challenges and Washington’s continued and escalating program of economic aggression and sponsored subversion, is an open question.

The analysis similarly suggests that Vietnam’s return to its previous outstanding record of pandemic control (total deaths per million to July 1 were less than one versus 1,829 for the United States) will require a return to the methods that had previously made Vietnam a world leader in pandemic control

US companies, which rely on Vietnam as a low-wage manufacturing center to produce consumer electronics, exercise equipment, apparel, and foot wear for Western markets, are concerned that the Vietnamese government will shutter factories in an effort to bring the outbreak under control, disrupting supply chains.

So far, this hasn’t happened. Instead of closing factories, the government has asked workers to quarantine at their places of work. This way, community transmission of the virus can be managed, without disrupting production.

True to the US cultural bias for techno-solutions, US companies have pressed the White House to accelerate its distribution of vaccines to the southeast Asian country, proposing that Vietnam emulate the United States’ failed vaccine strategy in preference to the country’s previous highly successful public health measures-based elimination strategy.

Shipping more vaccine doses to Vietnam will do little good.

First, vaccines, as we’ve seen, cannot do the job alone.

Second, even if they could, the number of doses the administration is sending is too small to make any difference. Washington has added one million Pfizer doses to the six million it has already sent, a trifle considering that Vietnam has a population of 100 million.  

For months, scientists and public health officials have warned that vaccines are not a silver bullet.

  • “There’s no fairy-tale ending where we wake up and there’s a vaccine that’s 100% effective and a 100% of people around the world can get it and take it and Covid’s gone.” Dale Fisher,  National University of Singapore.
  • “Vaccines alone won’t stop community transmission.” Mariangela Simao, WHO assistant director-general.
  • Vaccines “are not magic solutions.” Peter Hotez, Baylor College of Medicine.
  • “There’s been an attitude in some quarters that a vaccine is our automatic savior. They’re really important, but they’re not a silver bullet.” Simon Clarke, University of Reading.
  • “Vaccines alone will not be the silver bullet that will allow us to return to normal life.” Emer Cooke, Executive Director, The European Medicines Agency’s.
  • “Anyone who says that vaccines alone can end the pandemic is wrong.” Martin McKee, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
  • “The vaccinations were supposed to solve everything. We now understand that the vaccines are not enough.” Nadav Davidovitch, member of Israel’s Covid-19 advisory panel.

The WHO director-general, Dr. Tedros, explained earlier this month that, “There is no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be. For now stopping outbreaks comes down to the basics of public health and disease control; testing, isolating and treating patients and tracing and quarantining their contacts.”

In other words, vaccines are not an oasis. Indeed, in ending the pandemic, they appear to be of much less importance than the public health and social measures that China, New Zealand, and a few other countries have demonstrated actually work.