Coronavirus herd immunity not likely until end of next year, WHO says

The much hoped-for herd immunity against the novel coronavirus is unlikely to occur in many places around the world until the end of 2021, an official with the World Health Organization said this week when warning the next few months will be “critical.” 

“We are going to approach the beginning of the end, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the WHO’s chief scientist, told CNBC on Wednesday. “However, there’s still a tunnel we have to go through, and the next few months are going to be very critical.”

Speaking to herd immunity, “it’s going to take till the end of 2021 till we start seeing some level of population immunity coming up in some countries,” she continued. 

In the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, recently said herd immunity will likely be achieved should at least 75% of the population receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which he expects to be widely available come spring.

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Speaking to CNBC, Swaminathan warned people “have to keep our guard up” until herd immunity is achieved, meaning taking the important expert-recommended precautions — such as wearing a mask and social distancing — until that time. 

“We have to do all the things that we know reduce the transmission and the chances of people getting ill from this,” she said. “While we can look forward – certainly by the end of next year – to a much better picture, the next few months, I think, are going to be tough.” 

Swaminathan also briefly spoke to CNBC about the new coronavirus strain that has been identified in the U.K., noting that although more transmissible, the variant “does not appear to increase clinical severity or make things worse,” for those who contract it. 

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She said that the two COVID-19 jabs, developed by Pfizer and Moderna, that have been granted emergency approval in several countries including the U.S. could be “easily” tweaked if needed — though she expects them to be protective against any new variants as they are currently. 

“If there’s a need, it could be done,” she said. “But at the moment, I think most people believe that the current generation of vaccines should work just fine.”

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Swaminathan’s comments came the same day Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced another variation of the novel coronavirus has been detected in two people who were contacts of cases that stemmed from recent travel to South Africa. 

The variant, the second to recently be identified in the country, is “more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant that was discovered in the U.K.,” he said. 

Fox News’ Alexandria Hein contributed to this report.