Scientists are remarkably optimistic about their ability to develop a safe and effective vaccine for the coronavirus within the next six to 12 months. But even if those hopes come true, it is far from obvious that enough people will be willing to take the vaccine to halt the pandemic.
Long before COVID-19 arrived, a worrying number of parents refused to immunize their children against measles. The new virus has inspired an even louder movement of science deniers: Americans who have embraced quack remedies, ridiculed social-distancing measures, and decried masks as tyrannical. Could they stage a successful revolt against a mass-vaccination campaign?
It certainly seems possible. In a recent CBS News poll, half the respondents said they would wait before getting a vaccine; 20 percent said they would refuse it altogether. And so a growing number of articles warn about the possibility that, even once a safe and effective vaccine is available, America may fail to reach herd immunity—the point at which community spread ends because enough of the population is no longer susceptible to infection.
Wondering whether the pandemic might rage on because millions of Americans spurn a perfectly good vaccine, I recently contacted leading public-health experts from around the country. What they told me was largely reassuring. A coronavirus vaccine won’t meet the same resistance as the measles vaccine, because although few Americans have direct experience with the dangers posed by measles, dying patients and empty shops daily remind us of the urgency of vanquishing the current pandemic. And because the coronavirus is far less infectious, the country would achieve herd immunity even if a sizable minority of Americans refused to vaccinate themselves against COVID-19.