A shot in the arm - 2 | Daily News

A shot in the arm - 2

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries in this region to begin the vaccination of frontline health workers and Security Forces personnel, using the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccines donated by India under its “Vaccine Maitri” programme. According to Government statistics, more than 161,000 health workers and Security Forces/Police personnel have been vaccinated up to February 7, which still leaves around 90,000 more personnel waiting to be vaccinated as we had received 500,000 doses from India and each person needs two doses for the vaccine to fully take effect.

However, the biggest question on everyone’s mind is “when will the rest of the population be vaccinated?”. There is no argument whatsoever that our valiant healthcare and Security Forces personnel deserved to be vaccinated first, because they are in the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19 and could potentially be exposed to the deadly virus in the course of their duties. However, various opinions have been expressed with regard to the sequence to be followed next.

Most observers are of the view that those above 60 who also suffer from Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) should be next in line, followed by those in the general population above 60, then over 50s and so on. There is also a counter proposal to vaccinate the working population (25-55 years) first, as being done in some countries, because this is the demographic that can actually spread the disease, due to their mobility and increased social interactions. Right now, only three groups have been left out of the calculations – infants and toddlers, schoolchildren (5-19 years) and pregnant women, since none of the vaccines currently on the market is recommended for these groups.

Sri Lanka, being a part of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) COVAX initiative, will receive around eight million vaccine doses from the facility, which would be sufficient to inoculate around four million persons. Sri Lanka is also negotiating with Chinese and Russian authorities to get down their Sinopharm/SinoVac and Sputnik V vaccines either on a free or paid-for basis. The State Pharmaceuticals Corporation (SPC) has been appointed as the official agent of the Gamaleya Institute of Russia, the manufacturer of the Sputnik V Vaccine, with a view to packaging or even producing the vaccine here. That would be a landmark development in pharma production in this county, in line with the Government’s vision of making at least 70 per cent of the medicines locally. The number of doses pertaining to these negotiations is still not definitely known.

That still leaves around 14 million Sri Lankans needing to be inoculated. The good news in this regard is that the authorities are planning to order vaccines sufficient for vaccinating around nine million people initially. Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, State Minister for Primary Health Services, Infectious Diseases and Covid-19 Prevention has said that people between the ages of 30 to 60 will be vaccinated against COVID-19 from March 1, 2021. The State Minister said 4,000 centres would be set up for this task and it is also planned to operate 2,000 centres out of it per day for vaccination.

This is a step in the right direction and a direct answer to critics in the Opposition and other forums who had pointed out that the Government had “no plan” to bring down vaccines other than those donated by COVAX and various other countries. Besides, it is always better to wait a few months and consider all scenarios before settling on a vaccine candidate most suitable for our general population from cost, efficacy, storage, transport and logistics perspectives. For example, some of the RNA-based vaccines require storage and transport temperature of around -70 Celsius. Such ultra cold medical grade freezers are available only in a few hospitals in the country and using such vaccines here could be a logistical challenge. There is also the chance that the latest versions of the vaccines will be engineered to be more effective against new variants of the Coronavirus that have emerged in the UK, Brazil and South Africa.

Another lacuna in our COVID testing regimen is that there is almost no genomic sequencing to identify the prevalence of these new strains, which are more transmissible and reportedly more lethal. Right now, only the Sri Jayewardenepura University is apparently equipped with the facilities needed for such genomic sequencing of viruses. We not only need more Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) machines to speed up testing, but also more sequencing machines as well. We will be able to tailor appropriate health responses if we know more about the various variants in circulation.

However, even if 70 percent of the population is vaccinated (the threshold necessary to achieve herd immunity), there will be no free pass to go back to the “Before Times”. This is because we do not know whether vaccinated individuals can still pass on the disease and the duration of the effectiveness of the vaccine(s). It could be three months, one year or two years. Some scientists say the COVID jab could be an annual affair, like the flu shot. As always, prevention is better than cure.