A shot in the arm | Daily News

A shot in the arm

Sri Lanka’s efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic literally received a shot in the arm on Wednesday with the arrival in Sri Lanka of 600,000 doses of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine. Significantly, the country did not have to spend a single cent on it as it was a generous donation from China, one of our staunchest friends and allies. It was just the other day that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed matters of mutual interest including the vaccines over the telephone.

While the initial doses of Sinopharm will go into the arms of Chinese nationals living and working in Sri Lanka, the next round will be reserved for Sri Lankans, though the age group has not been announced at this time. An expert committee will analyse the vaccine further before this move.

The donation is timely in the present context, when India has temporarily stopped the export of the Covishield vaccine (the licensed version of the UK/Sweden Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine) as a result of the spike in Coronavirus cases there. Apart from the Covishield vaccine doses directly ordered by Sri Lanka from the Serum Institute of India (SII, manufacturer of Covishield), the temporary ban on exports will also affect shipments from WHO’s COVAX facility, which also procures vaccines from the SII. Fortunately, Sri Lanka has already received one consignment from COVAX earlier, before the export blockage.

However, the Government has been prudent in its approach to vaccination, having placed orders with multiple vendors. The National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA), in addition to the AstraZeneca vaccine, recently gave approval to the Russian-made Sputnik V Vaccine, which is said to be having an efficacy of 92 percent in real-world use. This vaccine has already been authorized for use in more than 40 countries. Sri Lanka has already ordered seven million doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, which should cover 3.5 million people as two shots are needed.

Sri Lanka is indeed fortunate to have begun the vaccination drive rather early in the day, just a couple of months after developed countries such as the UK and USA. The credit for this initiative should go to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Government, which took quick action to secure vaccine supplies. This is a creditable achievement, given that more than 100 developing countries have not been able to vaccinate even a single individual up to now as rich countries hoard vaccines and “lock in” further orders. In fact, some rich countries have ordered vaccine doses that can inoculate their entire populations five times over.

Sri Lanka has however managed to vaccinate close to one million people, including frontline health workers and Security Forces/Police personnel. The COVAX vaccine doses are being given to those over 60, while the earlier consignment was given to those aged between 30 and 60. This avoids the whole question of age groups, with one school of thought calling for the elderly to be vaccinated first while another wanted the working age population to get the jabs. This way, both sectors have been covered. Even accounting for the delays from the SII side, Sri Lanka should be able to vaccinate everyone apart from schoolchildren and pregnant women by the end of the year or even earlier.

There is hope for schoolchildren too, judging by the latest research. Trials conducted in the US among 12 to 15 year olds by Pfizer, which was the first to enter the now-crowded Covid vaccine arena with a new technology mRNA-based vaccine, has shown that the vaccine is 100 percent effective against the onset of serious disease and hospitalization. Moderna, the other mRNA-based vaccine maker, is also conducting trials among children. Both companies hope to conduct the trials all the way down to two-year-olds.

It will be vital to inoculate schoolchildren to ensure the smooth continuation of in-person classroom teaching. Online teaching has not been a roaring success even in the developed countries, due to broadband limitations and lack of access to computers. Besides, school is much more than textbook lessons, with attributes such as discipline, play, group work, obedience and punctuality also coming into the picture. Going by the “mantra” that no one is safe until everyone is safe, the teachers will also feel reassured if their students are also vaccinated.

Our health authorities should keep an eye on these developments and order vaccines for the younger generation as soon as they are authorized for use elsewhere in the world. Granted, Pfizer is expensive at nearly US$ 20 a dose, but broadly similar results could be expected from the other vaccines too. As for pregnant women and infants, they will have to wait for some more time as research has not yet been completed.

Sri Lanka is fortunate in that there is zero vaccine hesitancy here. Nevertheless, there should be frequent Public Service Announcements (PSAs) on TV and radio extolling the virtues of vaccination, urging citizens to get the shot when their turn comes. That will help Sri Lanka achieve herd immunity within this year and see the back of the dreaded Coronavirus.