“We can't vaccinate the planet every four to six months. It's not sustainable or affordable," said Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group and head of the UK's Committee on Vaccination and Immunization in an interview with the UK-based newspaper Daily Telegraph.
Professor Pollard’s salient remarks challenge us at a time when societies across the world are expanding the roll-out of their Covid-19 vaccination programmes. As mutated variants of Covid-19 are emerging with regular and steady intervals, the latest being dubbed Omicron and Deltacron, numerous countries are already in the process of adding third and fourth boosters in an attempt to curb contamination with the virus.
In fact, since the outbreak of the pandemic in late December 2019 in Wuhan, the People’s Republic of China, vaccines were identified as the ultimate panacea against Covid. Experimental vaccines were developed in many countries, including China, the US, the UK, Russia and Cuba. Since December 2020 many vaccines have been approved and the vaccination programmes have expanded to include three jabs and more boosters. As I noted in an earlier article published in Wall Street International, numerous countries started enforcing emergency measures such as lockdowns and confinement and putting in place national vaccination programmes with the aim of protecting the population against the pandemic.
Alas, all this is ex post facto, since the level of unpreparedness in most countries, the lack of intensive care units, ventilators and other medical equipment was breathtaking.
It took months for countries, even developed countries, to realize the magnitude of the threat, but gradually the pharmaceutical industry took the bull by the horns and developed vaccines that could be offered to their populations of those countries which could pay for them. Eventually, billions of vaccine shots were administered in an attempt to limit contagion and hospitalization and allow a gradual return to normalcy. However, many countries were left behind, as the WHO repeatedlycomplained of vaccine-hoarding.
With the new outbreaks, one can question whether the vaccines would in fact provide us with a quiet exit from the pandemic. What is striking remains the fact that the new mutated variants are spreading rapidly in countries that already have a large proportion of their populations vaccinated.
In Switzerland, where I live, there are on average 30,000 new cases a day. More than 65% of the population is fully vaccinated. In the case of Portugal, according to different newspapers, the country is bracing for ‘record Covid-19 cases’ following the Omicron outbreak. More than 90% of the population are fully vaccinated. Similar patterns can be identified in France, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands as well.
In countries with low vaccine inoculation, similar outbreaks have not been reported. This may be related to the lack of figures being shared by governments regarding the pandemic and the inability to carry out such measurements owing to lack of financial resources, expertise, personnel and technical capacity.
In spite of this, I believe that there should be room for reflection in good faith and objective manner to identify the most suitable way, or ways, out of the pandemic and assess to what extent vaccines in themselves will pave the way for a quiet exit. As we were reminded by WHO’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in November 2020: “a vaccine on its own will not end the pandemic.”
It is perhaps surprising that some societies have rushed to the conclusion that additional booster vaccine shots will curb the future spread of the virus and enhance the immunities of vaccinated people. Surprising, perhaps, because the first and second vaccine programmes did not prove to be the “silver bullet”.
Besides public health, moral questions have been raised, and it appears that social cohesion has suffered from fear-mongering and scapegoating. Society is being divided into the “good persons” who take the vaccines and the boosters, and the “dangerous persons” who do not. Harsh measures and restrictions are being introduced in several countries, penalizing those who hesitate and refuse to be vaccinated. As in all cases of discrimination, this requires some kind of democratic control.
Moreover, the measures should be proportional to the danger and always respect the human rights and human dignity of all persons concerned.
In this critical stage of the pandemic, governments and scientists should take a step back and reflect on whether additional booster jabs are truly the way forward. I believe Professor Pollard made a fair and critical point in his assessment that “We can't vaccinate the planet every four to six months. It's not sustainable or affordable.” Recent preliminary studies in Israel, a country with a large proportion of the population fully vaccinated, demonstrate that the ‘fourth Covid vaccine shots are less effective against Omicron.’ As we are reminded by Sophocles: “Quick decisions are unsafe decisions.”
In conclusion, the way of the pandemic hinges, inter alia, on the ability of scientists, governments and involved parties to determine the origin of the virus; assess the efficiency of vaccines; address vaccine inequality across the world; determine if the injection of booster vaccines enhance people’s immunity and protect against new mutated variants; to coordinate their efforts and take joint measures in curbing the contamination of the virus; to share information, data and relevant insights about the virus and the safety and efficiency of vaccines; and sharing of best practices related to preventive measures against Covid-19.
The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has repeatedly called for international solidarity in the fight against this global threat and reminded everybody that the pandemic must be de-coupled from politics and everyone should realize that we need a coordinated response.