Even after the destruction of millions of lives, livelihoods, social fabric and national economy of almost all countries – the mayhem of the Coronavirus pandemic continues, unabated.
Echoing what many other global experts, the United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director has also reiterated ‘that the only “ultimate solution” for the Coronavirus would be a vaccine.’ He added, the social distancing measures and travel restrictions could help curb the outbreak but can’t last forever. Moreover, the virus might come back. Thus, only a vaccine could help in the long run.
That a speedy progress in achieving this goal, is the most critical remits for the global medical scientists and technologists, attract not many contrarian viewpoints. Nevertheless, some red flags are also visible in this critical area. Thus, to give a multifaceted perspective to the ‘Covid-19 vaccine story’, let me dwell on some of these contentious areas.
Vaccines may not be ‘silver bullets’ for all:
According to the news release of the World Health Organization (W.H.O) on July 15, 2020, 75 countries have submitted expressions of interest to protect their populations and those of other nations through joining the COVAX Facility. This is a mechanism designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide. These countries would finance the vaccines from their own public finance budgets and partner with up to 90 lower-income countries.
It further added, interest from governments representing more than 60 percent of the world’s population offers ‘tremendous vote of confidence’ in the effort to ensure truly global access to COVID-19 vaccines, once developed.
Expressing its optimism and also a concern at the same time, the W.H.O on August 03, 2020, informed – out of a number of vaccines, which are now in phase-3 clinical trials, it hopes to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection. Interestingly, in the same breath, it cautioned, “there’s no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be.” The question, that may arise, if a ‘silver bullet’ in the form of Covid-19 vaccines is not available and a vaccine doesn’t work for all, how complicated would then the situation be? Can one expect Covid-19 to end, at all?
When can one expect Covid-19 to end, if at all?
Closely following the above message – “there’s no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be,” another message, a bit intriguing, though, came from the W.H.O on August 22, 2020. This time the W.H.O said, “it hopes the planet will be rid of the Coronavirus pandemic in less than two years — faster than it took for the Spanish flu.” Elaborating the point, the W.H.O Chief underscored, by “utilizing the available tools to the maximum and hoping that we can have additional tools like vaccines, I think we can finish it in a shorter time than the 1918 flu.”
The impact of anti-vaccine movement to end Coronavirus pandemic:
The question may sound crazy to many people, especially in India, but a similar concern has been expressed by many experts. The article – ‘Anti-vaccine movement could undermine efforts to end Coronavirus pandemic, researchers warn,’ published by the Nature on May 13, 2020, also raised this issue. The researchers of the study at the George Washington University, wrote - ‘studies of social networks show that opposition to vaccines is small but far-reaching — and growing.’
That anti-vaccine sentiments continue growing online, as medical scientists are flooring the gas pedal, has also been reported by ‘India Today’ on May 28, 2020 in an article titled, ‘Experimental Covid shots inject anti-vaccine sentiments.’ This belief was ‘prompted by theories that fast-tracked programs are profit-driven, loaded with health risks and will eventually lead to enforced immunization,’ it underscored. Notably, the W.H.O also has flagged the growing anti-vaccine feeling.
W.H.O flagged the growing anti-vaccine feeling:
The issue of growing anti-vaccine feeling has also been flagged by the W.H.O. It noted several reasons for fear of or opposition to vaccination, such as:
- Some people have religious or philosophical objections,
- Some see mandatory vaccination as interference by the government into what they believe should be a personal choice,
- Others are concerned about the safety or efficacy of vaccines,
- Or may believe that vaccine-preventable diseases do not pose a serious health risk.
Several of these could be significant in some geographical areas, within activist groups, community leaders, people with a different mindset, which may not be too difficult to overcome. Whereas, a few others may throw huge financial and logistical challenges to the nations. Interestingly, ‘one in three Americans is reluctant to take a COVID-19 vaccine.’
One in three Americans appears reluctant to be vaccinated:
According to a Gallup poll conducted between July 20, 2020 and August 02, 2020 ‘one in three Americans would not get a COVID-19 vaccine.’ This poll brought out the fact that ‘many Americans appear reluctant to be vaccinated, even if a vaccine were FDA-approved and available to them at no cost. Asked if they would get such a COVID-19 vaccine, 65 percent say they would, but 35 percent would not.’ Moreover, the percentage of Americans who feel strongly that parents should get their children vaccinated has also dropped by 10 percentage points, since 2001.
Other recent polls, reportedly, also found, whereas, around 50 percent of people in the United States are committed to receiving a vaccine, another quarter is still wavering. Some of the communities most at risk from the virus are also the “most leery.” ‘In France, 26 percent said they wouldn’t get a Coronavirus vaccine.’
Which is why, Covid-19 vaccines, which are expected to be available by early 2021, ‘won’t be mandated by the federal government’, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I don’t think you will ever see mandating of a vaccine, particularly for the general public. If someone refuses the vaccine in the general public you cannot force someone to take it,” he opined.
But how broad is this ‘spectrum of doubt’?
As captured in the article, “The Coronavirus pandemic is the moment of truth for anti-vaccine movement,” published by the Financial Times on April 28, 2020, some of the emerging issues are worth pondering. It wrote, although, there is a small, highly organized group of people who are implacably against vaccinations, ‘there is a whole spectrum of people who are concerned, or are on the fence, about them.’ According to a poll it conducted in late March 2020, Covid-19 ‘outbreak has the potential to change their minds’ in different ways, such as:
- Just 5 per cent of people in the UK say they would not take a Covid-19 vaccine if it were available, down from 7 per cent the week before.
- Whereas, in Austria, 18 per cent said they would not take a Covid-19 jab, compared with 16 per cent three weeks previously.
- The figure is similar in France, where 33 per cent – the highest proportion in the world — disagree with the statement “vaccines are safe”, according to another 2018 survey by the health research organization – the Wellcome Foundation.
Is there any anti-vaccination movement in India?
This issue has been well deliberated in many papers, one such is the article, “Theme – Ethical And Legal Challenges Of Vaccines And Vaccination, Public trust in vaccination: an analytical framework.” It was published in the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics (IJME), Vol 2, No 2 (NS) (2017). It makes some noteworthy points:
- While vaccination is one of the most successful public health interventions, there has always been a parallel movement against vaccines.
- Apart from scientific factors, the uptake of vaccinations is influenced by historical, political, socio-cultural and economic factors.
- In India, the health system is struggling with logistical weaknesses in taking vaccination to the remotest corners; while on the other hand, some people in places where vaccination is available, resist it.
- Unwillingness to be vaccinated is a growing problem in the developed world. This trend is gradually emerging in several parts of India as well.
- Other factors, such as heightened awareness of the profit motives of the vaccine industry, conflicts of interest among policymakers, and social, cultural and religious considerations have eroded many people’s trust in vaccination.
The paper concludes by arguing that engaging with communities and having a dialogue about the vaccination policy is an ethical imperative. Be that as it may, the question still remains: With vaccines can people go back to the old normal?
Despite vaccines ‘We cannot go back to the way things were’:
It is for sure now that despite vaccination, people won’t be able to get back to the old normal. On August 21, 2020, the W.H.O further clarified ‘that a vaccine will be a “vital tool” in the global fight against the Coronavirus, but it won’t end the Covid-19 pandemic on its own and there’s no guarantee scientists will find one.’ One can find a clear meaning to this statement, if the same is read along with the W.H.O Chief’s earlier statement that “there’s no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be.”
Other challenges for mass vaccinations in India:
There are some research studies in this area. Let me quote one of those, published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research. The paper noted – although, immunization is the most cost-effective intervention for infectious diseases, there exists a scarcity of information on vaccination status of young adults and the role of socioeconomic conditions in India.
The study concluded – although Td/Tdap (97.3 percent) and MMR (66.4 percent) coverage was in line with the recommendations, for all the other vaccines the coverage was lower – varying from 5.5 percent to 35.4 percent. A number of factors were found responsible for limited growth and penetration of vaccines in India, such as:
- Lack of adequate awareness among both physicians and patients.
- Patients prefer treating rather than preventing diseases.
- Vaccines are provided free under UIP program, but only for highly communicable and life-threatening diseases.
- Obtaining vaccines through private system is expensive and medical insurance policies do not cover vaccines.
- A lack of quality data on disease burdens and vaccine efficacy is the biggest obstacle in vaccine coverage in India.
- Distribution is hampered by inadequate cold chains and constrains to last mile distribution. Storage in the clinics is limited due to frequent electricity blackouts in India.
The vaccination coverage was found better in respondents with higher educated and higher income parents. The researchers suggested patient education, planning by government for the implementation of policy for adult vaccination and involvement of physicians are must for better adult vaccination coverage.
The United States, Brazil and India now account for more than half the total of over 22 million Coronavirus cases, globally. The number of fatalities had also gone past 782,000, as on August 20, 2020. However, the Coronavirus cases in the country, as recorded in the morning of August 23, 2020, have also reached a staggering figure of 3,044,940 with 56,846 deaths, despite all measures that the country has been taking. No signs of any respite, just yet.
The Government of India has officially acknowledged that for protection from Covid-19 infection, ‘the herd immunity level is “far away” for the Indian population and it can only be achieved through immunization by vaccines.’ Hence, the country’s dependence and stake on this ‘silver bullet’ are very high. From this angle, the vaccine story needs to be viewed from a multifaceted perspective, including what the W.H.O has already cautioned:
- ‘There’s no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be.”
- ‘That a vaccine will be a “vital tool” in the global fight against the Coronavirus, but it won’t end the Covid-19 pandemic on its own and there’s no guarantee scientists will find one.’
- The Coronavirus vaccines alone won’t end pandemic: ‘We cannot go back to the way things were’ in the old normal. In other words, people should try to adapt to the new normal to lead a normal life.
Besides, there could be other problems like, making vaccination mandatory. Or, distributing affordable Covid-19 vaccines through uninterrupted cold-chains in the remotest part of India, and appropriate storage there. Does India have a robust logistics support for the same, in place? Who will pay for all these? And more importantly, are there Plan B, C & D ready, to meet any unforeseen critical situation. Each of these warrants a deep-stick analysis – with a multifaceted perspective, as the devastating impact of Covid-19 pandemic is so real for all, especially for India.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.