Can the UAE achieve herd immunity this year?

Even though the WHO has ruled out worldwide protection against Covid-19 by the end of 2021, it could still be achieved in certain nations.
A commercial airplane flies past Burj Khalifa as it starts landing at Dubai international airport in the United Arab Emirates, on January 9, 2021. / AFP / GIUSEPPE CACACE

Earlier this week, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, encouraged all citizens and residents of the UAE to get vaccinated against Covid-19 to "help us end this pandemic". By personally encouraging people to do so, the country's leadership is making clear the direct line between inoculation and speeding up the nation's post-pandemic recovery. It also highlights that UAE public officials believe that an end to Covid-19's grip on our lives – at least in the Emirates – is in sight.

Herd immunity is the ultimate goal. As of Tuesday, 1,275,500 shots have been administered in the UAE, putting the country second globally in the number of vaccines administered for every 100 people. Any adult residing in the country is able to get the vaccine for free. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces said that “we hope that with vaccinations picking up pace, we will reach the point of full recovery in the shortest possible time”. That is the hope we all share and for which we must strive.

Yet, the projected pace of progress in an individual nation does not match global rates.

On Monday, the World Health Organisation warned that worldwide herd immunity would not be achieved by the end of 2021. Surging infection rates across Europe form part of this estimation. Other reasons given by the UN agency's chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, include limited access to vaccines in developing countries, false scepticism some hold over vaccine safety, and the threat posed by the virus mutating into more contagious forms, possibly ones that render vaccines less effective.

A picture taken on January 12, 2021 shows Al-Aweer desert farms, a food security oases in the Gulf emirate of Dubai, which has adopted a plan after the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic last year to cultivate the desert and provide crops to reduce imports from abroad.  / AFP / Karim SAHIB
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Vaccination rollouts do not mean the fight against Covid-19 is over

The statement stressed that any inoculation programme takes time. Nonetheless, many governments who knew even in the early days of the pandemic that vaccines would come failed to prepare logistically for a swift rollout. There has also been a global inability to develop strategies to keep up pace with misinformation and conspiracy theories about the safety of jabs.

The speed of vaccine development during this pandemic has been unprecedented. But this win does not guard against inevitable setbacks. Yesterday, researchers in Brazil published a study showing that the CoronoVac shot, a mainstay of the country's inoculation programme, is only 50 per cent effective.

Even in nations ahead on vaccination, cases are rising. Israel, which leads the field in inoculating its citizens, is experiencing a surge in infections that it blames on the arrival of the more infectious UK variant of Covid-19 in the country. On Tuesday, the UAE recorded 3,243 new cases of the virus, the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that the nation exceeded 3,000 daily cases. While this number is significantly lower than in other developed countries, it highlights the fact that the acceleration of vaccination campaigns does not yet mean the fight against Covid-19 is over.

Stressing this simple point consistently should remain central in public messaging the world over. Even in nations where herd immunity in 2021 remains possible, people must not lose discipline and jeopardise recent progress. Hand-washing, maintaining social distancing and wearing face masks in public remain as important as they were at the beginning of the pandemic.