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COVID-19

’70 percent vaccinated isn’t enough’: Why Spain is revising its target for Covid herd immunity

The widely quoted 70 percent immunity target promised by Spain’s Prime Minister by late August is on track to be reached, but in the face of growing community transmission due to the Delta variant, Spanish health authorities have now set the vaccination bar higher. 

spain herd immunity
As of August 2nd, Spain has vaccinated 2.7 percent of its teenage population. Photo: Frederic J. BROWN / AFP

Back in April, Pedro Sánchez committed himself and his government to achieving a 70 percent inoculation rate among Spain’s 47 million inhabitants by the end of the summer. 

This now appears to be within reach, with the number of fully vaccinated people in Spain standing at 56.88 percent on July 30th, a rate that grew by 20 percent in the last month.

But the emergence of Delta as the dominant variant, which largely explains why Spain has one of the highest infection rates in Europe despite leading the way in vaccinations, has spurred the country’s Health Ministry to rethink its goals. 

The herd immunity threshold depends on two factors: the effectiveness of vaccines and the R number (the average number of people that one person with Covid-19 will infect). 

The herd immunity target of 70 percent for Covid-19 was calculated under the premise that vaccines had a 90 percent efficacy rate but seeing as vaccinated people can still get infected and infect others (community transmission is still high), this effectiveness rate has been revised down to 50 percent. 

Equally, the R number used to determine the 70 percent immunity threshold was 3 back when Sánchez set the target at 70 percent, whereas with the Delta variant this has jumped up to 10 infections per infected person. 

“Once we reach the target of 70 percent vaccinated, we need to carry on vaccinating people until we get as close as possible to 100 percent of the population,” Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias said in a recent radio interview in which she also confirmed there would be a “third reinforcement vaccine”.

Although Darias stopped short of offering an exact percentage, the most quoted new herd immunity thresholds by Spanish and international virologists are 85 percent and 90 percent.

Officials in countries such as Canada and Ireland have publicly revised the figure up to 90 percent. 

“Now we know that 70 percent will not be enough, as the Delta variant is more infectious,” epidemiologist Quique Bassat told Spanish TV channel La Sexta. 

“With measles for example, which is much more contagious than the coronavirus, you need to vaccinate 95 percent of the population to reach herd immunity.

“Therefore, we are already talking about 85 percent with Covid. 

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“Reaching 70 is already difficult and I think that it’s now necessary to include teenagers in the programme, who will be the ones who will help us increase this proportion of the vaccinated population and get a little closer to that target, a bit utopian, of herd immunity”. 

For Spain to immunise 85 percent of its population rather than 70 percent, another 9 million people would have to be fully vaccinated.

Spain’s Covid vaccination programme includes as its youngest age group 12 to 19 year olds, with Murcia and the Canary Islands leading the way in vaccinations for this group.

Inoculations in over 12s have been approved by the European Medicines Agency and Spain has followed suit. As of August 2nd, Spain has vaccinated 2.7 percent of its teenage population. 

Spain’s Health Minister has admitted that vaccines for children younger than 12, who represent 11 percent of the country’s population, remained a “controversial” subject for the public.

“It’s true that young children are generally not transferrers of the virus but if we want to achieve full immunity we should be able to vaccinate them,” Darias told Onda Cero.

“We’ll broach the subject calmly and use scientific evidence.”

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COVID-19

Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.

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