Vaccines are unlikely to provide “a silver bullet” for the pandemic, according to leading scientists who warn that face masks and physical distancing will be needed “for the foreseeable future”.
The Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences has warned in a new report published on Tuesday that vaccines will not immediately “return Australia and the world to what we now consider as pre-COVID ‘normality'”.
Instead, along with anti-viral therapies and other health tools, they will simply help to reduce the number of people hospitalised or killed by COVID-19.
This is because even though recent vaccine trials showed effectiveness of 90 per cent and above, it will take a long time to manufacture, transport and administer the vaccine across Australia.
“Even a vaccine that is 90 per cent effective (at reducing disease) will take time to manufacture, distribute and administer, and may have limited impact on SARS-CoV-2 transmission and spread, or protection may be short-lived,” the report reads.
“Australia’s comprehensive COVID-19 public health measures and management approach will therefore remain crucial to the ongoing response.”
The report said a safe and effective vaccine, able to prevent at least 50 per cent of symptomatic COVID-19 episodes, would likely be approved and available for use in Australia within the next year.
But because of uncertainties over the safety and efficacy of vaccine candidates and the speed with which a successful vaccine can be manufactured and distributed, the report said “contact tracing, isolation and quarantine will be our best strategy to balance public health and open up society and the economy”.
“Physical distancing, use of face masks and hand hygiene all have roles to play and are known to be effective,” the report said.
“Ongoing public information is essential to ensure that the community understands the current status of the pandemic and why specific measures are being promoted, especially if infection rates remain low and the immediate threat appears to be lower.”
The report also highlighted as two major issues the pandemic’s heavy toll on our mental health and the increased propensity of patients to avoid presenting at hospitals and clinics for checkups and care “for fear of contracting what they perceive to be a more serious illness”.
The academy concludes that Australia’s public health strategy must “for the foreseeable future” be driven by:
- Ongoing implementation of comprehensive public health measures, including high levels of testing combined with contact tracing, isolation, quarantine, social distancing and mask wearing
- “Optimal roll-out of vaccines and other interventions as they become available, including improved antigen-based diagnostics to provide rapid options for active case detection”
- “Effective prevention and treatment of long-term health issues arising from the pandemic, including mental health and “long” COVID”
- Support to other countries in the region
- “Sustained and enhanced backing for research and innovation to develop the tools required to tackle the pandemic – even when case numbers are low.”