Global Vaccine Shortage Requires Immediate Action – Dr. Olivia Nieveras
By Vindya Amaranayake
Dr. Olivia Nieveras, Officer-InCharge, WHO Sri Lanka, explained in a brief interview with Ceylon Today why the global shortage of vaccines and the global and local surge in COVID-19 cases require immediate action.
In your statement, you mentioned 'countries cannot vaccinate their way out of this problem'? Can you elaborate more on this?
A: Vaccines are part of the toolbox to combat COVID-19. It is extremely important to combine vaccination with public health and social measures. The global shortage of vaccines and the global and local surge in COVID-19 cases means immediate action is needed. We must stay the course and “do-it-all” and do it better. This means, along with vaccination, we need to continue practising physical distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands with soap, increasing ventilation, avoiding crowds, disinfecting surfaces, and staying home if not feeling well or asked to by a health authority.
You also mentioned, “We have evidence-based tools to reduce the spread” such as "avoiding crowded places, confined and closed spaces". Are vaccines one of those 'evidence-based' tools?
A: Yes, COVID-19 vaccines are a key evidence-based tool to reducing the spread of COVID-19. Vaccines are a global public good: Everyone benefits when anyone is vaccinated. There will be no true health or economic recovery unless all parts of the country and world reduce the impact of COVID-19; vaccines are a key part of that. The main purpose of COVID-19 vaccines is to reduce death and severe disease. That’s why vaccines are first given to older people and people with comorbidities who are at higher risk of experiencing severe disease. Getting vaccinated may also protect the people around you because if you are protected from getting the disease, you are less likely to infect someone else. This is particularly important to protect people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, such as older people and people with comorbidities. It also helps protect people who cannot be vaccinated, like people with allergies to the vaccine.
As more virus variants are being discovered, there are questions with regard to vaccine efficacy. Is there a plan, at the global level to address this issue?
A: Viruses change as they circulate, this is normal and common. Some of these changes may alter the virus characteristics (e.g., increase their transmissibility). Therefore, it is key to stop the spread of the virus as soon as possible by using public health and social measures (e.g., hand hygiene, physical distancing, mask use, avoiding crowds, etc.) to reduce transmission. Widespread vaccination is also crucial because as more people get vaccinated, the circulation of the virus will be reduced, and the opportunities for new mutations and variants will also reduce. More studies are needed to assess the effectiveness of the current COVID vaccines against the variants, however current preliminary data suggest that the vaccines stimulate enough immunity to retain substantial efficacy against most variants especially for severe disease, hospitalisation, or death. In other words, current evidence shows that current COVID-19 vaccines provide substantial protection against severe disease and death from COVID-19, even with emerging new variants. Vaccine manufacturers are also working to adapt the vaccines if needed.
How successful and effective has the COVAX facility been, in deploying vaccine consignments to vulnerable regions?
A: COVAX is a global vaccine initiative co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), funded by donations from governments, multilateral institutions and foundations; with UNICEF leading on procurement, logistics, and storage globally in what will be the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history. COVAX is working in partnership with the World Bank, ADB, member countries, civil society organisations, manufacturers, and others to fulfil its mission to help end the acute phase of the pandemic as quickly as possible by enabling global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. While there are issues on timely delivery and countries like Sri Lanka are now having gaps in vaccine availability, COVAX is adopting a multiprong approach to remedy this problem. COVAX began delivering vaccines in early March. To date, the Facility has delivered over 53 million doses to 121 countries around the world.
Each new variant of the sarscov-2 virus appears to be more robust and fastspreading than the previous ones. Is there a scientific explanation for this?
A: It is normal for viruses to change, but it is still something scientists follow closely because there can be important implications. All viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, change over time. So far hundreds of variations of this virus have been identified worldwide. WHO and partners have been following them closely since January 2020. Most changes have little to no impact on the virus’ properties. However, depending on where the changes are located in the virus’s genetic material, they may affect the virus’s properties, such as transmission (for example, it may spread more easily) or severity (for example, it may cause more severe disease). More information can be found here: https://www.who.int/newsroom/q-a-detail/sars-cov-2- evolution
Healthcare systems all around the world are overwhelmed due to the sheer number of cases and some are on the verge of collapse. What assistance does the WHO provide to such countries?
A: WHO is supporting countries by providing tools and resources on how to predict, prepare, and plan for a surge in cases. This includes health system strengthening and workforce development at the global and country levels. WHO, with partners, conducted a health system capacity estimation including human resources, equipment, supplies, ICU capacity, etc. We also supported the country in preparing to receive and roll out vaccines. Furthermore, WHO supported human resource capacity building through the translation of 6 courses online training modules from Open WHO and the WHO Academy into Sinhala and Tamil.