The Endemic Path is the Way Out

Commentary, COVID-19, Government, Marco Navarro-Genie

The Alberta premier’s plan to treat the coronavirus as endemic was the way out of the COVID crisis. That he is once again adopting restrictions for the province, for the fourth time, does not negate the endemic approach. 

But his declaration, paraphrasing President Joe Biden, that we have “a crisis of the unvaccinated” offers no solution. The newest health impositions reveal a vaccine that doesn’t act like a traditional vaccine. Old vaccines simultaneously provided individual immunity and a barrier against the spread of infection. The COVID shots do neither all that well. 

The COVID shots are no infection barrier, especially among elders, because the immunity from the shots isn’t lasting as long as originally thought. At first, the numbers of people sick with COVID in long-term care homes dropped dramatically after they were immunized. However, Alberta government statistics show that comorbidities are a better predictor of infection than the absence of vaccination. For those older than 60 with pre-existing conditions, over the last 120 days, the rate of infection is higher for vaccinated people than for non-vaccinated. Among those aged 80+ with pre-existing conditions, the vaccinated have acquired the virus at three times the rate of the unvaccinated. 

For all its risks and failures, the COVID shot lowers the rate at which the infected end up in hospital or succumb to the illness. This is certainly good. But we should come clean on the abysmal infection result among the older cohorts, even among those with no comorbidities.

Medical bureaucrats, media and governments have made the pandemic out to be all about case numbers and in this sense we continue to fail our elders despite the rhetoric about vaccination. Not surprisingly, instead of immunization or the risks, the debate has moved to how vaccines help avoid the harsher reactions to the virus.

The central question about how to exit the crisis, however, is this: if everyone were vaccinated tomorrow, it is clear now from existing data, the spread of infection would not stop. Oscillating somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent, those vaccinated still contract and spread the infection. Data from Israel show, and manufacturers now admit, that the efficacy of the COVID shot declines within months and the limited protection it offers may not last past six months.

Booster shots, we now hear, are the immediate and longer term solution. But the rush impulse to give everyone boosters, already being indulged in the United States, brings us to significant ethical and practical problems. 

In ethical terms, rich countries offering boosters further delays the first shot for half of the planet’s population. The policy universalizes the prime minister’s approach: rob vaccines from the poor to give to the rich.

On the practical side, more variants will arise in a world where half the population has not been vaccinated and in which a quarter to half the vaccinated can transmit infection. The catalogue already includes many mutations of SARS-CoV-2 and there will be more. So far, only eight variants are causing COVID-19 infections; the rest of the variants are not affecting people. However, as the Brazil and India variants have shown, populous countries like Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and so forth might be ripe for generating more variants of concern. 

Variants of concern have great potential to find their way to Canada each time, challenging the efficacy of the shots and producing waves of new cases among vaccinated and unvaccinated. Given the speed at which medical bureaucrats make politicians panic and given the speed at which health-care systems are brought to the brink of collapse, new infection waves will push toward the only alternative leaders know: restrictions and lockdowns. 

Therefore, a better exit strategy from leaders is needed than just relying on the limited ability of the vaccine. Failure to devise and implement such a strategy will condemn us to live in a repeating cycle of clamping and reopening. It will continue to weaken economies, increase anxieties, family violence and mental health disorders, augment unemployment, keep deaths by overdose at rates as high or higher than we have had, continue school closures, bankruptcies, restrictions on elective and not-so-elective procedures for chronic and other diseases and maintain the focus of fear on COVID-19 that has caused more deaths than the virus.  

Adding to this are those who continue to dream of and push for global eradication of SARS-CoV-2. They drive the policies that subject us to lockdown cycles. They are far more dangerous than the virus itself.

Marco Navarro-Genie is president of the Haultain Research Institute and senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. With Barry Cooper, he is co-author of COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic (2020).

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash.