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Herd Immunity Is Closer Than You Think

With new variants emerging rapidly and new outbreaks in places that had seemed to have the virus under control, COVID-19 remains a global problem. But the recent sharp increase in vaccine supplies indicates that the global solution we need is well within reach.

LONDON – When will the world have vaccinated 80% of all adults, the level presumed by scientists to produce herd immunity against COVID-19? Most people’s answer is 2023 or 2024, which suggests deep pessimism about the progress of vaccinations outside the rich world. That is also why pledges at the recent G7 summit to donate one billion doses to poor countries during this year and in 2022 look to some like generous game-changers.

But despair is the wrong sentiment and self-congratulation by the G7 is the wrong reaction. If the current daily rate of vaccinations can be maintained, the world can reach its vaccination goal by January 2022. The first step toward effective action is to convince oneself that a problem is solvable. To that end, the Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy, an independent, non-partisan group of 34 high-level doers and thinkers from around the globe, has done the math to come up with a global vaccine countdown. Surprisingly, we found that the challenge is much more manageable than we imagined, and on a timetable much faster than that assumed by the G7 governments.

The arithmetic is simple, but first you have to decide whether to regard China, the world’s most populous country, as an inspiration or an exception. According to Our World in Data, China now accounts for 17-20 million of the 33-36 million doses being administered worldwide every day. With China included, the countdown reaches zero in just over 200 days; without China, the time increases to 370 days. That is an important difference, but it amounts to reaching the finish line in July 2022, rather than in January. Even if a higher threshold of 90% becomes necessary, owing to the lower efficacy of Chinese vaccines, we are still nearly there.