The National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) has granted regulatory clearance for the emergency use of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine clearing the road for frontline workers to be inoculated soon. However, the news comes in the backdrop of Sri Lanka recording its highest daily patient count underscoring the massive challenges still presented by the pandemic.
On Thursday, 887 COVID-19 patients were detected, the highest since 878 cases were detected on 2 December. Even though the Government has approved the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine it is still unclear how the first vaccines will arrive in Sri Lanka. Currently the most likely option appears to be India, which has already supplied vaccines to several countries in the region.
Free shipments of AstraZeneca’s vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest producer of vaccines, have begun arriving in the Maldives, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal. Myanmar and the Seychelles are next in line to get free consignments as India uses its strength as one of the world’s biggest makers of generic drugs to build friendships. A consignment has also been promised to Sri Lanka and India was awaiting regulatory approvals, which have now arrived.
Not to be outdone China has also reportedly agreed to provide a consignment to Sri Lanka and the NMRA is also evaluating giving approval to Sputnik V, which is the Russian COVID-19 vaccine. However, in the race between the virus and the vaccine the former is winning. Only a handful of countries have managed to inoculate more than 5% of their populations but the virus is evolving new variants and spreading to millions daily. In the US more people are dying of COVID-19 than soldiers did during World War II.
It is therefore essential that policy makers understand that the arrival of the vaccine is not going to be the end of COVID-19. In addition, there is limited information in the public domain on how the Government will inoculate essential workers as well as when and how will the vaccine distribution be scaled up to cover the general public. There are plenty of examples around the world showing how badly planned vaccine distribution can worsen public access with places like Florida seeing vaccine tourism due to thousands of people trying to jump the queue.
Sri Lanka by contrast has a much smaller population to deal with but transparency will be key to ensure that the most effective system or method is used to get maximum impact from the limited vaccines that may be coming its way.
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.