Is COVID-19 Dying Out?

From the U.K. comes the extraordinary news that vaccine manufacturers may not be able to test their vaccines successfully because hardly anyone is getting the Wuhan virus:

Hopes that a vaccine for the coronavirus could be ready by September are hanging in the balance, as the scientists developing it are concerned that a slowdown in the rate of infection in the general population could invalidate the human trials currently taking place.

Prof. Adrian Hill, Director of the Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, has told The Telegraph that there is only a 50-50 chance that the vaccine his team has been developing can be successfully tested.

The team has recruited 10,000 people to test the vaccine, some of whom will be given the vaccine and others a placebo. But as it is unethical to purposely infect people in the trial with COVID-19, participants will be asked to go about their normal routine in the expectation that some will be exposed to it naturally. However, that is unlikely to happen if the virus is not spreading, meaning that no conclusions can be drawn one way or the other about the vaccine’s efficacy.

Hill expects that fewer than 50 people in the test population will catch the virus, but if less than 20 test positive the results may be useless.

Wait–he is afraid that 20 people out of 10,000 (or maybe 5,000, or whatever number get the placebo) won’t catch the virus by going about their normal activities?

“It is a race, yes. But it’s not a race against the other guys,” he said. “It’s a race against the virus disappearing – and against time. We said earlier in the year that there was an 80% chance of developing an effective vaccine by September. But at the moment, there’s a 50% chance that we get no result at all.

“We’re in the bizarre position of wanting COVID to stay, at least for a little while. But cases are declining.”

Somehow, this is not the impression we are getting from the Democratic Party press in the U.S., which desperately wants the virus to stick around until November 3.

The Oxford team is not the only one facing this predicament. So far, eight potential vaccines have reached the stage of human trials: four in China, two in the US, one in Germany and the one of the Oxford team. With cases dwindling, all of the teams are looking for hotspots globally where they can conduct their trials.

“You think we’ve got a problem?” Hill asked. “What would you do if you were in China? There are three Chinese companies looking for Phase Three and there’s no COVID in China. So what do they do?”

There is no COVID in China? I had assumed the Chinese government was lying. Perhaps not. Still, if vaccine manufacturers are looking for a sure-fire hot spot to test their products, all they need to do is come to Minnesota and sign up nursing home residents. They won’t have any problem getting positive test results.

I frankly have no idea what to make of this story. I assume the Oxford/Astrazenaca team is looking for volunteers in the U.K., and the U.S. is a little behind the U.K. with regard to the virus’s time line. But still, if new COVID cases are so rare that it is hard to test vaccines, it is long past time to end the absurd shutdowns that have blighted hundreds of millions of lives.

A final observation: why are new cases becoming rare, when countries like the U.K. and the U.S. haven’t had anywhere near enough coronavirus infections to approach herd immunity (at least, as far as we know)? Why do viruses die out? Epidemics follow a bell curve; they disappear long before they infect everyone in a population. Why? Am I the only one who feels like epidemiologists know less than I had always assumed?