Indonesia ditches herd immunity as Covid-19 Delta variant pushes it beyond reach

Indonesia is relying mainly on less effective Sinovac shots, compared with the more potent mRNA vaccines.
Indonesia is relying mainly on less effective Sinovac shots, compared with the more potent mRNA vaccines.PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - Indonesia is shifting away from its goal of reaching herd immunity for Covid-19 as the rise of the more infectious Delta variant pushes the threshold beyond reach.

Currently available vaccines are less effective at stopping transmission of the Delta variant, making it possible for the virus to continue circulating even if everyone in the country gets immunised, according to data under review by the government.

Indonesia, which has become the epicentre of the global pandemic, plans to redouble its efforts to control Covid-19 on the ground rather than relying on vaccinations alone to bring it to heel, said Mr Jodi Mahardi, spokesman for the minister overseeing the pandemic response.

Global challenge

It is a challenge the entire world is now confronting.

A report from the Infectious Diseases Society of America estimated that the United States would need to vaccinate nearly 90 per cent of its population in order to reach herd immunity, a broad level of protection that emerges when so many people have immunity that the virus can no longer take hold and circulate.

Even then, there is no proof yet that the approach will work, given the risk of breakthrough infections, new variants or other factors with the virus that has been around for less than two years.

The level is even greater for Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous nation. It is relying mainly on less effective Chinese-made Sinovac Biotech shots, compared with the more potent mRNA vaccines from Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna that dominated in the US.

The numbers look stark on paper.

Indonesia's modelling assumes Delta's reproduction rate is 6.5, meaning every 10 infected people would spread it to 65 others. To reach herd immunity, the country would need to immunise 154 per cent of its population if using Sinovac's shots, or 128 per cent if using Pfizer's - an impossibility.

Delta's spread

South-east Asia's largest economy has been topping the world's tally of daily Covid-19 deaths as the Delta variant spreads through the country and overwhelms its hospitals.

The government said as recently as last month (July) that it is trying to reach herd immunity by fully inoculating 70 per cent of the population by November.

It is now seeking to control the pandemic with a combination of vaccines, mask mandates and restrictions on movement.

Its target is to push the virus' reproduction rate down to 0.9 by October, low enough to reduce the overall number of infections. It still has a target of administering 2½ million vaccines per day this month. Just 8 per cent of Indonesians are fully inoculated.

Indonesia is not alone, as other countries raise concern that the road to herd immunity may be longer or less likely than previously anticipated. Officials in neighbouring Singapore said they are aiming for low levels of infection, an endemic state that is similar to what is seen every year with influenza, instead of herd immunity.