Asked by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age what this would mean for Australia’s quarantine program, Swaminathan said “I don’t believe we have the evidence on any of the vaccines to be confident that it’s going to prevent people from actually getting the infection and therefore being able to pass it on”.

“We need to assume that people who have been vaccinated also need to take the same precautions till there’s a certain level of herd immunity. This is a dynamic in an evolving field.”

Australia’s stated goal is to suppress all community transmission. Several states, including Victoria, which went into a harsh three-month lockdown earlier this year, have eliminated the virus, recording no new cases for consecutive weeks.


New South Wales has imposed localised restrictions as it races to curb an outbreak first detected in the week before Christmas.

The country’s elimination strategy has hinged upon its tough border bans, which prevent Australians from leaving the country unless they are granted an exemption and imposes caps on the number of citizens who can return, after which they must quarantine for two weeks under guard in a hotel.

Dr Mike Ryan, director of WHO’s Health Emergencies warned that COVID-19 was here to stay.

“The likely scenario is the virus will become another endemic virus, a virus will remain somewhat of a threat but a very low level threat in the context of an effective global vaccination program,” Dr Ryan said.

“The existence of a vaccine, even at a high efficacy, there’s no guarantee of eliminating or eradicating an infectious disease, that is a very high bar for us to be able to get over,” he said.

“First and foremost we have to focus on saving lives, getting good control of this epidemic so our societies can return to normal and then we will deal with the moonshot of potentially being able to eliminate or eradicate this virus. But at this point, based on the tools and the knowledge we have, that’s impossible to say at this point.”

Dr David Heymann from London’s School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene went further.

“No matter what we’ve done to date, it will continue to spread, despite vaccines, despite therapeutics, despite diagnostic tests,” he said of the virus. “We have to learn to live with this and use the tools that we can in the best way possible.”

He likened the current pandemic to smallpox and the use of the “imperfect vaccine” to control and eventually eradicate the disease.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has been contacted for comment.

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