“We can’t be certain, but I think it’s unlikely we will end up with a truly sterilising vaccine, something that completely stops infection, and it’s likely this disease will circulate and be endemic.
“And this starts to look more like annual flu than anything else and that may be the direction we end up going.”
Vallance said that, as management and treatments became better, combined with the vaccine, that the chance of infection would reduce as well as its severity.
He reminded MPs that there was only one human disease — smallpox — that had truly been eradicated through a vaccine and that it was “a very difficult thing to do”.
“And it’d never been done before about five years at the very quickest,” he said.
He said the results of eight vaccine candidates now in phase-three trials would soon be known.
“So we will know, I think, over the next few months whether we have any vaccines that really do protect and if so how long they protect for,” he said.
“And at that point we’ll also have a clearer idea of the safety profile of these vaccines and from there and can start looking at what a sensible vaccination strategy could be across the population.”
Vallance’s comments provide a challenge to countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
In Australia, last week’s federal budget hinged its economic recovery and reopening of international borders on a vaccine coming online next year.
This week, the Australian Medical Association warned that it was time to question whether Australia’s roadmap for dealing with the pandemic remained “fit for purpose”.
The AMA is challenging the government’s assumption that a population-wide vaccine would be in place next year, cautioning that medical experts believe that “we could be living with the virus for some considerable period of time”.
Dr Omar Khorshid, the AMA president, said that Australian governments needed to reinforce the need to maintain social distancing rather than allowing life to return to normal because community transmission had been all but eliminated.
“While we understand that governments want life to return to normal, this is a risky strategy,” Dr Khorshid said.
“Instead, Australia needs to learn to live with a sensible set of restrictions for the time being, while we wait for a vaccine and/or better treatments.”
Dr Khorshid said states such as Western Australia which have dropped restrictions because they are COVID-free were more susceptible to Victorian-style lockdowns because of complacency in the community that could easily see the virus spread again.
The British Oxford Vaccine Group’s candidate, which would be produced by AstraZeneca, is considered one of the leading candidates.
Australia has secured supplies of 34 million doses that would be manufactured in Melbourne.
A spokesman for federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government has followed the expert health advice from the outset.
“[The government] is working with the states and territories through the national cabinet process focussing on a strategy of high testing rates, rapid contact tracing, social distancing and good hygiene to limit the spread of COVID-19,” the spokesman said.
“The Australian Government has invested over $16.5 billion into the overall health response to COVID-19, which has been targeted and aligned with the health advice to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.”
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.