COVID-19 Vaccine Drive Begins
By Tharaka Samman
A year has lapsed since the initial emergence of the COVID-19 virus in Sri Lanka. Only a few days back it completed 12 months since the first Sri Lankan patient had been detected with the dreaded disease. During this time period, close to 80,000 people have been detected with the fast spreading COVID-19 virus, while the death toll has exceeded 400.
Now, this particular virus has ravaged our land for over 365 days dealing a debilitating blow to this country’s social, economic, cultural, and political firmament. It was on 31 December two years ago that the Wuhan City Health Commission first announced to the world that a cluster of patients stricken from an unidentified pneumonia related pandemic had been discovered in China. Afterwards when the virus began to ravage across the globe, the WHO then announced on 30 January last year that a global health crisis has emerged with regard to the spread of the pandemic. Even by that time Sri Lanka had discovered its first infected patient and it happened on 27 January.
The health authorities had identified that a Chinese woman had contracted the virus and she was promptly admitted to IDH in Angoda. Accordingly measures were then implemented to set up scanners at airports to check the temperature and prevent the spread of the virus from tourists and the filling up of forms to gather details of all visitors etc. The first COVID-19 infected local patient was reported from this country on 11 March last year. He was a tour guide. The first local patient succumbed to the symptoms of the virus on 28 March last year. He was a 60-year-old who was being treated at the IDH in Angoda and it was confirmed by then DG of Health Services Dr. Anil Jasinghe.
A total of 3,723 people were infected as part of the so-called first wave of the spread of the pandemic while the total number of victims stood at 13. The second wave of the spread of COVID-19 began with the discovery of an infected female worker attached to the Brandix Factory at Minuwangoda on fourth October last year. Afterwards a COVID-19 cluster emerged from the Brandix Factory and until to date a few other COVID-19 clusters also emerged.
Among two of the prominent clusters that emerged during this second wave of the spread of the pandemic were, the Peliyagoda Fish Market and the Prisons coming under the purview of the Prisons Department. With the number of people dying from fatal complications arising from it increasing daily the society began to heatedly debate the pros and cons of the virtues of the cremation and burial of the bodies of the victims. Sri Lanka was able to dispel any doubts with regard to the receiving of a vaccine to curb the spread of the virus, when India as a gesture released 500,000 jabs of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to Colombo on 28 January this year. Accordingly the Government decided to release the inoculations of the vaccine to those in the frontline of combating the spread of the virus such as the health officers, forces personnel and those in the Police.
Emergence of new variants
The task of releasing the jabs of the vaccine to ordinary people who are most at risk of contracting the disease took place on 15 February. The process was begun from the Western Province. In the meantime 16 people were detected with the new variant of COVID-19 which was identified as B.1.1.7 with the strain having spread in 82 countries to date. Of that number 13 were Sri Lankans who had arrived here from overseas. The other three were first contact Sri Lankans. Under these circumstances it has to be figured out as to where Sri Lanka stands in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 and what the immediate future would be like to this country.
Director of the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine of Sri Jayewardenepura University Dr. Chandima Jeewandara says that so far three new strains of the COVID-19 virus have been detected in Sri Lanka. The first such variant was observed in the Kandakadu COVID-19 cluster while the second variant known as B. 1. 411 had been detected in the second wave of the spread of the pandemic. He said most number of people had contracted the illness from the second variant. The third variant which emerged in the country was known as B. 1. 1. 7.
Spread of third variant found to be rapid
Dr. Jeewandara said that the spread of the third variant has been much faster compared to the other two variants. He however insisted that despite the number of infections rising, they were still to ascertain with certainty whether the strain could escalate the condition of the disease. To date the new COVID-19 variant that was first detected from the UK has now spread to 82 other countries. Dr. Jeewandara added that though it has shown that the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines are capable to effectively combat the spread of the virus it has not declined the productivity of the vaccines. He then said that they were yet to affirm positively whether the other vaccines are able to tackle the spread of the other variants of the virus. In this connection we sought views from the Secretary of the GMOA Dr. Senal Fernando and he stated that the risk posed to the society by the virus would remain the same considering the constant nature of changes undergone by the virus. He warned that the threat of the rapid spread of the new strain of COVID-19 remained the same.
Dr. Fernando explained that despite the spread of whatever COVID-19 variant here the people ought to follow health guidelines to the letter if they are to prevent themselves from contracting the killer virus. He mentioned that health guidelines such as the wearing of facemasks, the constant washing of hands and maintenance of social distancing would have to be followed day in and day out by the masses. The GMOA Secretary said that all decisions that are being taken by health authorities here would have to be taken in line with the changes that take place outside Sri Lanka having monitored its spread in other countries.
He added that the measures that are being taken at health official level would have to be further strengthened. He also urged the Government to identify areas where the virus has shown a tendency to spread rapidly and then impose lockdowns or travel restrictions to such places. He observed that it was up to the Epidemiology Unit (EU) to state with certainty whether the virus has spread in society or not. He pointed out that as per the guidelines issued by the GMOA the virus could spread under four categories and insisted that the data in this connection would be available with the EU. He then charged that the EU has failed to release those details to the people for whatever reason.
He opined that if the Government seeks to obtain the support of the people in its effort to curb the spread of the disease then it was up to the EU to release the relevant data to the public rather than shielding it. The GMOA Secretary further noted that despite receiving jabs of the new COVID-19 vaccine the public must not desist from their habit of sticking to the health guidelines 24/7. He said that the vaccine has only been manufactured within the span of the past five-year period and maintained that they could only be able to inform of its success rate in the future of its ability to overcome the disease totally.
He said the reason for this is tests are still being conducted on the success rate of the vaccine to tackle the virus. Dr. Fernando mentioned that as the influenza vaccine is still being inoculated annually it was too premature to say whether such a time period could also be allocated for the COVID-19 vaccine as well. He remarked that at the present juncture the vaccine was the best solution to the curbing of the spread of the illness. The GMOA Secretary stated that until a sure-fire vaccine is developed to tackle the spread of the illness globally the only recourse for people is to adhere to health guidelines as mentioned before. Dr. Senal Fernando said that due to the uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19, in all probability the country could experience a surge in both infections and deaths come April this year.
We then inquired from the head of the National Centre for the Eradication of COVID-19 Army Commander General Shavendra Silva whether any changes would be added to the prevalent health guidelines in the aftermath of the discovery of the new COVID-19 variant here. He asserted that the prevalent health guidelines would remain as it was before. He said there was no need to introduce any changes to the guidelines and stressed that it was up to the public to follow the rules and regulations if they intend to avoid contracting the killer virus. Silva added that with effect from 15 February they had begun to release shots of the vaccine to the public with the programme being launched from the Western Province.