New variants and vaccines

Thursday, 14 January 2021 00:36 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

COVID-19 is rarely out of headlines these days and with good reason. According to local health officials, the dreaded UK variant has been detected in the country, fuelling fears that additional challenges lie ahead for Sri Lanka in controlling the pandemic. 

But it is not all bad news. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed an eight-member Task Force to oversee the assessment, procurement and eventual distribution of a vaccine. However, it is imperative that Sri Lanka maintains the strictest COVID-19 guidelines while formulating the best regulations to distribute the vaccine and successfully inoculate the population. 

Sri Lanka has already appealed to both India and China to supply vaccines, which have been rolled out in those respective countries. It has also signed up for the World Health Organisation (WHO) program that will provide enough vaccines to inoculate 20% of the population. Under this effort the Government hopes the first doses of Pfizer and the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines will arrive in the country as early as next month. The Health Ministry has already drawn up a priority list, which will including frontline workers. All these are positive developments. 

Nonetheless, there are several points Sri Lankan policymakers will need to keep a close eye on. While it is undoubtedly a modern medical achievement to have a vaccine ready to use in such a short period of time there are still concerns about the efficacy of the different vaccines.

For example Indonesia, which is currently rolling out its initial vaccine drive focused on medical professionals is getting push back due to questions over the effectiveness of the Chinese company Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac. The confusion is mainly because the vaccine has posted different results in different trials. It was 50.4% effective in a Brazilian trial, but Indonesia approved it for emergency use based on interim data showing 65.3% efficacy. Turkish researchers provided an interim figure of 91.25% and the WHO has backed it because it passes their mark of being more than 50% effective.

This puts policymakers, who are often strapped for cash and faced with populations demanding fast vaccinations, in a quandary. It certainly makes sense to get the most effective vaccine but with the pandemic evolving in ways that are difficult to map and most developing countries having limited resources to spend on vaccine procurement and distribution, hard decisions lie in the future for Sri Lanka and others.

Moreover, even those who have obtained the vaccine will have to continue wearing masks and social distancing because it is possible for them to still pass on COVID-19, even though they will no longer get infected. In addition, there are concerns that as the virus continues to mutate the efficacy of the vaccine will wane over time requiring countries to allocate funds from future budgets for fresh rounds of vaccinations.

For countries struggling with economic hardships these are hefty challenges but not dealing with them will be costlier still as the longer the virus spreads unchecked the harder it will be for economies to return to pre-normal levels. It is therefore essential that policy making around COVID-19 is transparent and follows scientific benchmarks – attributes that have not always been at the core of Government efforts.