Vaccination Week from April 25 to May 2 passed this year with hardly a mention. Not surprising because the world was at the time scrambling to craft a response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which, seven months into its spread, find us still struggling to develop a coordinated global response.
Under normal circumstances, the World Health Organisation (WHO) would have galvanized the resources necessary to undertake the global fight necessary to wrestle COVID-19 to the ground. This was the case with SARS, the Ebola outbreak and many other diseases. But alas, we are not in normal times.
Wild conspiracy theories have been given oxygen through the Internet and social media in a way that has seriously undermined our trust in vaccines and medical therapies in a way that has become frightening.
The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), whose director Carissa Etienne, is a proud product of the Caribbean, warned: “Vaccines save lives and must be maintained even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The most vulnerable should not suffer the consequences of not getting the vaccines they need.”
Interestingly, Etienne disclosed that while we were preoccupied with how to respond to COVID-19, three countries in the Americas – Argentina, Brazil and Mexico were also battling serious outbreaks of measles.
Barbadian children have for decades benefited from a comprehensive, successful state-sponsored immunisation programme for illnesses such as measles, mumps, rubella, and polio among others. Even the chicken pox vaccine can be had free of cost at our network of policlinics.
The take-up rate too for these vaccines in the Caribbean has been stellar. Juxtapose this with the current debate over the race for a vaccine for COVID-19.
With the pandemic causing significant medical, social and economic upheaval, the world is desperate for solution and it could not come sooner.
Beneath that desire for a quick fix to the COVID-19 problem is an underlying fear that inherent in the rush to be rid ourselves of this deadly disease, we are likely to get it wrong and the risks could be disastrous.
United States President Donald Trump has made the colossal error of attaching a date by which Americans will have a COVID-19 vaccine. And surprise, surprise, it will be just in time for the November 4 2020 presidential election.
While Mr. Trump is free to promise whatever he wishes to the American electorate, we in the region must guard against any rushed prescriptions.
Americans should not forget the 1955 Cutter incident when the live polio virus was accidentally placed in a batch of vaccines by the Cutter Labs and it resulted in 40 000 children being infected, hundreds suffering from paralysis and ten deaths.
The American Government has made it clear that if it finds a successful vaccine for COVID-19, they are not prepared it share it immediately with the rest of the world. It will be America First at warp speed! And on this occasion, we say go right ahead Mr. President.
We are reminded that under normal circumstances, successful vaccine development can take 15 to 20 years. And interestingly, there are currently 160 COVID-19 vaccines in development. This is a major feat considering that scientists only knew of the novel coronavirus in late 2019.
It is likely to be a case of who pays the piper calling the tune. And John Mascola, director of the vaccine centre at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has warned us that there can be no single winner in the race for a COVID-19 cure. He has argued that even if there are several safe, efficacious vaccines available, some countries may be left behind if they are scrambling to finance a vaccine. It is also important to monitor emerging COVID-19 hot-spots to inform vaccine distribution decisions.
Public health officials are already worried about a situation where one country has all the vaccines while outbreaks are taking place in other countries. And as outlined by the WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, – We are not going to be safe from COVID-19 until we are safe everywhere.
Finding a safe, effective response to this disease must be done in an ethical, safe, and fair manner, with the necessary trials and approvals before it is unleashed on the world desperate for a cure.