The COVID-19 Vaccination Drive May be Slow—But it’s Already Faster than Any in HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: Vaccination, COVID-19
New York magazine calls it “a disaster.”
Vanity Fair says it is “an absolute mess.”
A potential “shambles,” warns the U.K.’s Daily Mail.
That’s the prevailing take on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout so far in the U.S. and Britain. Less than two months after the first vaccine—Pfizer’s messenger RNA–based inoculation—received the first regulatory approval, more than 9 million doses of various COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the U.S. and 2.45 million in the U.K. That’s enough to cover 2.8% and 4% of each country’s respective population.
Do these numbers really indicate a hopelessly bungled vaccination effort? And how does this compare with historical mass vaccination drives?
“What we’ve seen in the U.S. is an expectations game gone awry,” says Jason Schwartz, a professor of public health and the history of medicine at Yale University. “There were off the chart expectations from federal government about the pace of vaccinations.”
He said the current numbers were “absolutely not a disaster.” If they looked like one to some observers, he says, it is largely because the U.S. government foolishly predicted, in an attempt to bolster political support, that 20 million people would be vaccinated by the end of December.
There are a few parallels for the current vaccination effort, which is aimed at inoculating almost the entire population and is taking place in the midst of a deadly pandemic. “This really is unprecedented,” says Paul Offit, a pediatrician and vaccine researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The closest historical analogy to the current challenge is the campaign to combat polio in the mid-1950s. As with COVID-19, the public had eagerly anticipated and tracked development of the first polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk with funding from a private charity—the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, better known as the March of Dimes, Schwartz says. The U.S. government approved wide-scale use of Salk’s vaccine in April 1955. By August, some 4 million doses had been administered, enough to have immunized about 10% of U.S. children under the age of 12, who were the main target population for the vaccine.
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