Photo depicting a blue rendered image of a flu virus.

Weekend Long Reads: COVID-19 and the Flu

by Kevin Schofield

This weekend’s “long read” is a column from Dr. Arnold S. Monto, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Our hopes that COVID-19 could be eradicated, he says, were based on faulty assumptions, and we now need to shift to planning for how we will deal with the virus for the foreseeable future — much the same way that we manage influenza.

The notion that we can eliminate COVID-19 has been rooted in the concept of “herd immunity”: Once enough people gain immunity through exposure or vaccination, further transmission paths become increasingly scarce and the virus simply dies out. But herd immunity depends on two factors: low transmission and eliminating pockets of susceptible people. The delta variant has blown both of those away; it’s highly transmissible, and some number of vaccinated individuals have still contracted it (though, for the most part, they either remain asymptomatic or develop only mild cases). 

If COVID-19 isn’t going away, that means we need to adjust to living with it — and influenza is one model for how we might do that. Vaccinations will still be important, but, as with flu shots, the model will focus on re-vaccinations at regular intervals instead of “one and done.” Doctors recommend an annual flu shot for two reasons: first, because our immunity wanes over time; and second, because of “antigenic drift,” ongoing mutations in the virus such as we have seen with the delta variant. Twice a year, the World Health Organization updates its recommendations for which influenza strains should be targeted by flu shots, and we can expect that a similar process will emerge for COVID-19 vaccination development.

At the moment, the best COVID-19 vaccines are over 90% effective in preventing symptomatic infection; that is far better than the 50–60% effectiveness on average for flu shots, and will help keep COVID-19 at bay for as long as we can sustain it. We still don’t have good data on how fast vaccine-based immunity wanes, though, and we are only just beginning to understand the patterns of antigenic drift in COVID-19, so it’s too early to predict how often we will need COVID-19 shots. 

There is one other piece of good news, though: Effective therapeutics and antiviral medicines are coming onto the market now. If vaccines can continue to substantially reduce the number of severe COVID-19 cases, and medicines exist to treat the cases that do occur, we may quickly learn to live with this.

The Future of SARS-CoV-2 Vaccination — Lessons from Influenza

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

📸 Featured image is attributed to quapan (under a Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0 license).

Before you move on to the next story …
Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!