Professor Alexander Skupin is part of the research team that developed the model. Photo: scienceRelations
A research team at the Luxembourg centre for systems biomedicine (LCSB) estimates that with around 3,000 inoculations per day, the grand duchy would be able to reach herd immunity by April. However, at the current pace the reality looks less promising.
In their research paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed, professor Alexander Skupin and his team tried to offer a better understanding of the epidemic in Luxembourg and compare it to other countries, namely Austria, which had similar reactions to the pandemic with regards to lockdowns and other measures, and Sweden, which had a very different take on the pandemic in the beginning.
By looking at the developments of the health crisis in these different contexts and considering how the effectiveness of some measures rather than others was reflected in the demand on hospitals, the aim was to look at how the vaccination, in combination with the slowdown of social interaction, could help with immunizing around 70% of the population in a reasonable way, but also as fast as possible in order to reach herd immunity.
Reaching herd immunity by the end of the year?
“We assumed that by vaccinating one person with one shot, and given the social interaction level of December, and our healthcare system, if we could immunize 3,000 people per day then we could have reached herd immunity around April. Obviously, this would imply a lot of vaccines that currently are not available and probably will not be available within the next weeks. So if we would go with 1,500 vaccinations per day we would reach herd immunity around July, mid of summer,” professor Skupin told Delano.
However, he admits that this seems rather unrealistic at the moment, given that Luxembourg is currently vaccinating at a much slower pace with a maximum of around 400 to 500 inoculations per day and bearing in mind that the Pfizer/BioNTech as well as the Moderna vaccines both require two jabs per person. “If we would have 500 people vaccinated per day, that would mean 250 immunizations per day. With this pace we would barely reach herd immunity by the end of the year,” Skupin admits. So although vaccinations will help reach herd immunity, this will not happen from one day to the next which is why social measures will continue to play a key role in slowing down the spread of covid-19 in the grand duchy, according to the researchers.
But what will happen when Luxembourg finally reaches herd immunity? Will face masks be forgotten as quickly as they became a new essential? Will restaurants reopen and limitless social interaction be possible again? According to Skupin, once the majority of the population is immune to the virus, the choice of how to act will be much more on an individual level than on a societal one.
“What we do right now, with these measures, is, on the one hand, to directly protect ourselves but to a larger extend actually contribute to the suppression of the entire pandemic which in the end is protecting ourselves again but indirectly. Since we suppress the curve, the probability to get infected by a random person that you meet is also lower. These measures and our changes in social interaction are really now more on the societal level to collectively contribute to the suppression of the curve whereas then once we reach herd immunity it is more a decision about my own health and then I can decide.”
Working towards a European solution
However, considering Luxembourg’s strategic position in the middle of Europe and with tens of thousands of commuters crossing the borders every day from different countries, herd immunity alone will most likely not suffice to keep the virus out of the grand duchy. Which is why a collective effort on a European scale would be of crucial importance according to Skupin. “If commuters go to restaurants here and do their grocery shopping, then they are much more part of the social interaction in the country and then this can have an effect. This is also the reason why, from the scientific side we are pushing for a European solution so that we can tackle that problem on a European level.”
Moreover, uncertainties surrounding immunity persist, particularly with regards to the limited data currently available concerning whether or not an individual, once immune, will still be able to transmit the virus. “In general, I would say that the probability that you then transmit the virus is rather low because when you are immune it means that your immune system is killing the virus. So when it’s coming, the immune system knows it and it is killing it off, meaning that if you’re immune your virus load is really, really low and then the probability that this low virus load can infect somebody else is also rather low,” the professor explains.
The threat of future mutations?
Many people also remain sceptic considering the increasing amount of variant strains and mutations of the coronavirus that have been developing in other countries and have also made their way to Luxembourg. Around 10 different variants currently circulating in the grand duchy according to the national laboratory LNS.
Although, the covid-19 vaccines already on the market are supposed to also offer protection against these new mutations, Skupin says that there is no guarantee that they will be able to protect against variants that might develop in the future. "There can be no guarantee for future mutations. In the end it’s not so different compared to a flu virus, and we are somewhat lucky because the covid virus is not mutating so fast. […] So far, we have a few different variants, but they are not that different, so that’s why the vaccines, at the moment, are very likely to cover the current mutations but this doesn’t mean that there couldn’t be a variant occurring somewhere at some point that cannot be suppressed by the current vaccines.”