Coronavirus: even vaccines for all the world’s vulnerable is no guarantee of a ‘silver bullet’, says WHO

Sarah Zheng
·4-min read

The World Health Organization said high-risk populations in all countries might be able to receive the Covid-19 vaccine by the end of 2021 but the vaccine was “not a silver bullet” for resolving the global pandemic.

Takeshi Kasai, the global health agency’s regional director for the Western Pacific, said on Thursday the vaccine roll-out for most in the region would likely be in mid to late 2021 but that vaccines would initially be available in limited quantities and high-risk groups should be a priority.

“If the right scale and type of investment are made, the end of 2021, next year, should have adequate doses to vaccinate a high-priority population in all countries around the world,” he said. “For others, beyond those high-risk groups, we may be looking for another 12 to 24 months before the majority of people have received this vaccine, and even then, there is some uncertainty and unknowns.”

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The WHO has said people older than 60 and those with underlying health conditions are considered high risk. Health care workers and essential workers are seen as priority groups for vaccination.

While Kasai said news of early vaccine roll-outs in Britain and the United States was “very promising”, he cautioned that developing safe vaccines was different to producing them in quantities big enough to reach everyone.

“There is some light at the end of a long tunnel but these vaccines are not a silver bullet that will end the pandemic in the near future,” he said. “This means that, tired as we all are of this pandemic, we must stick to the actions and behaviours which protect not only ourselves but also those around us: hand washing, mask wearing, physical distancing and avoiding places that have a high risk of transmission.”

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As global coronavirus cases have ticked up to nearly 72 million, including 1.6 million deaths, the world has waited eagerly for the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines. Britain was the first to approve a vaccine developed by Germany’s BioNTech and US-based Pfizer, with the first doses delivered to people in Britain, the US and Canada in recent days.

China has secured 100 million doses of the BioNTech vaccine by the end of 2021, enough to cover 50 million people with the two required shots of the mRNA-based vaccine. According to the phase 3 study of the vaccine it was found to be 95 per cent effective against Covid-19 compared to a placebo.

Chinese officials said earlier that China planned to have 600 million doses of inactivated Covid-19 vaccines ready for market launch by the end of the year.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have both approved China‘s Sinopharm vaccine after trials showed it was 86 per cent effective, although experts have raised concerns because the complete trial data has not been made public.

The WHO said it would work to ensure fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, including through the Covax Facility global scheme that aims to deliver at least 2 billion vaccine doses by the end of next year for people in poorer countries. But Reuters reported late on Wednesday that an internal report by the board of Gavi, which leads Covax with the WHO, said the “risk of a failure to establish a successful Covax Facility is very high”.

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Babatunde Olowokure, the WHO’s regional emergency director, said on Thursday that mass vaccinations would still not stop the virus and that public health interventions, including social distancing and mask wearing, would remain part of the “new normal”.

Since several places in the region, such as Hong Kong, had reported increases in cases and localised community transmission, he said there was a need for “decisive, localised response that focuses on testing, isolation of cases, contact tracing, as well as quarantine”.

As Hong Kong struggles with its fourth wave, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said a deal had been reached to secure 15 million shots of Covid-19 vaccines, with the first batch of 1 million from mainland supplier Sinovac Biotech arriving in January, followed by another 1 million from BioNTech by the first quarter of 2021. The vaccine from British-Swedish maker AstraZeneca is expected to deliver 7.5 million shots by the second half of next year at the earliest.

Olowokure added that the WHO’s international delegation to China was likely to visit the country in early January, after Beijing’s earlier protests against calls for an independent inquiry into the virus in China and criticisms of its early handling of the outbreak.

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