By C. ben-David
We are certainly in a bind when it comes to the acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines in SVG.
Public skepticism was in no way allayed even after Prime Minister Gonsalves tried to set an example for the rest of us when, after “prayerful consideration,” he agreed to be injected with the highly controversial Russian Sputnik-V vaccine, a product rushed to distribution without going through the lengthy and long established four-stage testing protocol.
Indeed, “Back in August , it [Sputnik V] was the first [in the world] to be registered for emergency use although it had only been tested on a few dozen people.” This is why, “The quick approval of Sputnik V in early August … was met with criticism in mass media and precipitated discussions in the scientific community whether this decision was justified in the absence of robust scientific research confirming the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.”
Still, we all know that Dr. Gonsalves has spent his whole political career making all manner of bold, risk-tolerant decisions resulting in five-in-a-row election victories.
But he and his medical advisors may now be taking one risk too many in trying to hector our people — including teachers, health care workers, van drivers, and young, healthy people — into being inoculated with the British-developed AstraZeneca vaccine, yet another drug that was granted emergency distribution before the normal testing regime was completed.
The tiny batch of the Russian vaccine was donated to SVG by some unnamed “intermediary.” The 20 doses, enough for 10 people, have presumably been commandeered by members of the political inner circle surrounding the prime minister even while 62% of ordinary Russians have resisted taking it along with many other nations rightly suspicious of medical research in that chronically corrupt country.
Given its small supply, none of this seemed to be any real consequence, or so it appeared, because we soon received 40,000 doses of the British-developed Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine. Manufactured in India, this large batch was sold or donated to us by the Indian government, perhaps as part of international COVAX programme.
For many older Vincentians with one or more co-morbidities and a fond memory of our former colonial overlords, a vaccine partly developed at no less an august site than famed Oxford University must have seemed like a godsend. Proof of this may be found in the fact that thousands of these senior citizens, many of them returned migrants with British citizenship and accents, flocked to the various injection sites when the vaccine was distributed early this month.
Since then, the rush to vaccinate seems to have been reduced to a trickle.
Lost in our government’s zeal to get our people vaccinated is the fact that this jab is still technically listed as experimental, has been largely ignored by the Indian people (which is why we were able to so quickly procure part of their huge surplus supply), provides only 62 to 72% efficacy protection against catching COVID-19 as opposed to the 95% of some other vaccines, is generally not recommended for people over 65, “… due to limited information on the efficacy of this vaccine in this age group at this time,” and has just seen its use halted in 24 countries in Europe, South East Asia, and elsewhere over safety concerns regarding the possible development of blood clots.
Many of these countries have access to other vaccines. For us, the choice is “take it or leave it,” the “leave it” meaning a second cancellation of Carnival, continued restrictions on van occupancy, the banning of indoor dining, and, among others, extended school closures,.
In addition to these considerations, SVG has a very young population and it is doubtful whether school-aged children, in particular, or healthy persons under 60, in general, needs to be inoculated except using a paranoid interpretation of the “precautionary principle” which says that if anything could possibly go wrong by some course of action, in this case not accepting a vaccination, it certainly will go wrong, in this case dying or becoming ill from COVID-19. This is certainly false because most people will not contract COVID-19 or have any symptoms if they do, nearly all those who do catch the virus will have mild symptoms, only a handful will have to be hospitalised, and hardly any will die. The most compelling evidence for supporting these assertions is that even though COVID-19 has spread across the globe since late 2019, it has killed 2.7 million people representing 0.03% of the world’s 7.8 billion population, mainly elderly people with life threatening co-morbidities. By comparison, in 2015, a year with relatively few virus deaths, 55 million mainly elderly people, or seven times more, died across the globe from various causes.
Even though young people are not immune from catching or spreading the virus does not mean that vaccination would stop them from spreading the virus to other people. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , “The risks of SARS-CoV-2 infection in fully vaccinated people cannot be completely eliminated as long as there is continued community transmission of the virus. Vaccinated people could potentially still get COVID-19 and spread it to others.”
This is especially true for spreading COVID-19 to the vulnerable people they closely associate with such as elderly co-resident parents and grandparents. How many such young people would continue to wear a mask or social distance while at home? How many are now doing so without being vaccinated?
As for non-family, does it even need to be said that, like the citizens of many other countries, we are not a particularly civic-minded people which makes Chief Medical Officer Dr. Simone Keizer-Beache’s comments about young people needing to take the vaccine to protect other people almost laughable.
To vax, or not to vax: that is the fundamental question all our people need to rationally ask themselves based on their individual circumstances and the best scientific evidence.
As for me, an elderly male living in the diaspora who suffers from coronary artery disease, I have an appointment to receive an injection of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday, March 22, a drug that is in very short supply which is why it is unavailable in SVG but has proven to be 95% effective against contracting COVID-19.
As they say, to each his own.
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