The recent news that a vaccine has shown effectiveness against Covid-19 is very encouraging. But what does this mean for outdoor goers? Does this mean all climbing and mountaineering will get back to normal after Christmas? Professor Ian Hall of Nottingham University answers a few questions:
Do we know how good the Covid-19 vaccine actually is?
The recent press releases suggest both the Pfizer and the Moderna manufactured vaccines are 90% effective against developing Covid 19. However, at present the actual data have not been made public, and we have not seen the safety data, although the press releases suggest the vaccines were well tolerated. Assuming the vaccines are 90% effective at preventing Covid-19 cases across all age groups, and have good safety profiles, this is a real breakthrough which will potentially, over the coming months, allow the lifting of most of the restrictions which have disrupted climbing and walking activities.
How long will it take for things to get better?
We are currently in a second wave of Covid-19 activity: indeed, where I am based in Nottingham we have more cases in the community and in hospital than we had in the spring. A vaccine is not going to be of benefit in the short term in dealing with this second wave for two reasons: the first is about timing. The vaccine needs to be given in two doses three to four weeks apart. Protection will build up after that time (and we don’t know how long it will last for). The safety data is expected in early December, and a roll out of vaccinations will only happen after the data on effectiveness and safety have been carefully evaluated. So it is likely to be at least late January before any benefit of immunity produced by vaccination would be seen in even a selected population.
The second reason is a logistical one: it will take a considerable time to vaccinate enough of the population to drive infection rates down. In the absence of any other measures the R value for SARS-CoV2 is around 3, so one would need over 2/3rds of the population to be protected to reduce this below 1. Vaccinating that many people will probably take months, even assuming that sufficient stocks of vaccine are available. So in reality I think it is likely to be early summer before we see any major benefits from a vaccination campaign.
What if these vaccines produces unacceptable side effects?
The good news is that there are a number of other vaccines in late stage testing, and many target the same protein that the Pfizer vaccine is targeting. So it is likely that other vaccines will also soon be available which in theory should prove effective.
Will everyone be able to get the vaccine?
There is a proposed prioritisation list of groups to receive the vaccine, and this suggests initially concentrating on vaccinating health care and social care workers who might be at risk of transmitting Covid-19 to patients and the elderly. Prioritisation then is likely to be given to those at most risk of severe disease, ie the more elderly. So otherwise young and fit walkers and climbers may well find themselves lower down on the priority list for vaccination, and will probably have to wait until the higher risk groups have been vaccinated.
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Can we stop other measure such as social distancing?
At present, this is absolutely not the case. However, once levels of transmission are low, it should be possible to reduce or stop measures such as social distancing, travel restrictions and mass testing, but this isn’t going to be possible in the short term. My best guess is that there is a reasonable chance things will get more or less back to normal by next summer, and assuming no problems arise from vaccination, next autumn and winter should also be a lot better than this year.
However, we don’t know how long immunity from vaccination will last, and I think it is quite likely we will be left with a situation where Covid-19 behaves similarly to influenza, ie we will have limited outbreaks in the late autumn/winter most years which can be mainly controlled by annual vaccination.
What about mass testing?
The government is rolling out much more extensive testing following the pilot in Liverpool. This will mainly use a rapid point of care test that gives an answer in ~30 minutes but is not as sensitive as the existing PCR based testing. The main advantage of the mass testing approach is that it will identify at least some individuals without symptoms, who would then self-isolate, thus reducing the number of community transmissions.
What about the winter walking and climbing season?
I think at least the early part of the winter climbing season is going to be pretty disrupted by ongoing travel and social distancing restrictions. The proposed approach to coming out of the national lockdown in England is to go back to a tiered system of restrictions, but it is unlikely in my view case numbers will fall sufficiently rapidly for unrestricted travel to be possible at least until later in the winter season. Rules are slightly different in the devolved nations, but the general principles will still hold.
Should we plan for overseas trips next year?
This is a difficult question to which it is impossible to give a definitive answer. Assuming as I have suggested rates of Covid-19 reduce markedly by the spring, it seems likely that relatively normal travel will be possible next summer: whether or not it is possible to resume extensive overseas travel ahead of that is less certain, and will depend on both the rates of Covid-19 in the UK and the rates in other countries. I expect we will continue with the approach of travel corridors for the next few months as rates fluctuate.
So is this really good news?
Very definitely yes. Whilst there is still a need to comply with existing restrictions, for the first time there is a potential exit strategy to allow walking and climbing to return to pre-pandemic conditions.
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