Only 16 Countries Have Vaccinated 70 Percent of Population, Minimum for COVID Herd Immunity

COVID-19 vaccinations are believed to be key to ending the pandemic but only 32 percent of the world has been fully vaccinated and reaching global herd immunity could be eight months away.

The historic speed at which COVID-19 vaccines were developed was met with a slow global vaccination effort, partially fueled by vaccine inequity. The World Health Organization has long stressed the need for a global approach to vaccinations, warning that significant portions of unvaccinated people in low and middle-income countries will perpetuate the pandemic, but vaccine hesitancy has left even high-income countries struggling to inoculate large swaths of their populations.

As of Thursday, only 16 countries--Malta, Portugal, the United Arab Emirates, Iceland, Singapore, Spain, Qatar, Denmark, Uruguay, Chile, Ireland, the Seychelles, San Marino, Belgium, China and Canada--have fully vaccinated at least 70 percent of their residents. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), believes 70 percent is the minimum needed to achieve herd immunity.

Of the five wealthiest countries on a per capita basis according to Nasdaq--Luxembourg, Switzerland, Ireland, Norway and the United States--only one, Ireland, has reached the 70 percent threshold.

Achieving herd immunity happens when enough of a population has immunity to a virus that the virus' ability to spread is significantly limited, thereby protecting an entire community. The goal of reaching herd immunity in terms of COVID-19 has been to protect those who cannot be vaccinated against the virus.

However, it's possible that will never happen. Sir Andrew Pollard, head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, told British lawmakers in August that the Delta variant's ability to infect vaccinated individuals and their ability to transmit the virus to others made achieving herd immunity "mythical."

"And that does mean that anyone who's still unvaccinated, at some point, will meet the virus. That might not be this month or next month, it might be next year, but at some point, they will meet the virus and we don't have anything that will stop that transmission," Pollard said.

16 countries fully vaccinated 70 percent covid
Only 16 countries have vaccinated 70 percent of their population against COVID-19. Maria Cardona Ribas, who has received a transplant, receives the third dose of the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 on September 15 in Ibiza, Spain. Zowy Voeten/Getty Images

Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) have also expressed concerns about the world's ability to stop transmission of the virus, alluding to the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 could become endemic. Fauci, however, hasn't given up hope that COVID-19 could become a thing of the past.

"We've had formidable viruses that we've eliminated. Things like polio, measles in this country. We can do it if we put our will and all of our resources, which we are doing, to do that. I'm talking about getting the world vaccinated within a reasonable period of time," Fauci told MSNBC on September 14.

Regardless of the virus' future, officials maintain that getting vaccinated is vitally important. Along with helping prevent a person from getting seriously ill or dying, the vaccine reduces the virus' ability to spread. To mutate, a virus must be able to find hosts and continued circulation raises concerns among officials about a variant emerging that evades vaccines and therapeutics, thereby putting the entire world at risk once again.

More than 3.4 billion people, an estimated 44 percent of the world's population, have received at least one dose of a vaccine. About 32 percent of the population is considered fully vaccinated, about half of the minimum believed necessary to significantly reduce the virus' transmission, but WHO officials remain disappointed that the majority of doses have been administered in just a few countries.

While vaccines are widely available in some countries, others are struggling to inoculate their most vulnerable and health care workers. A shameful occurrence, according to Dr. Tedros Adhnom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, as he's called for wealthy nations and companies to use their resources to inoculate the world.

Ghebreyesus has called for 70 percent of the world's population to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by mid-2022.