As India launchesthe world’s most ambitious and biggest vaccination drive against the COVID-19, the country will encounter the formidable challenge of rapidly scaling up distribution of the vaccines to secure immunity for its entire population, two prominent Indian scientists working at Geneva-headquartered World Health Organisation (WHO) have said.
This daunting challenge is not only for India but also for all the governments across the globe as they start inoculating their populations to tackle the pandemic, noted Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist, WHO, and Dr Hamsadvani Kuganantham, Consultant, WHO. On Sunday, the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO), India’s drugs regulator, had approved Oxford vaccine Covishield, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), and Covaxin of Bharat Biotech for restricted emergency use for the frontline warriors and senior citizens in the country.
Currently, there are 45 candidate vaccines in clinical evaluation and 156 candidate vaccines in pre-clinical evaluation, the WHO scientists said. COVAX, a ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, is jointly led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance set up by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and the WHO. “It is the only global initiative that is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries,” they wrote in an article for Manorama Yearbook 2021.
“The goal of COVAX is by the end of 2021 to deliver two billion doses of safe, effective vaccines that have passed regulatory approval and/or WHO prequalification. These vaccines will be offered equally to all participating countries, proportional to their populations, initially prioritizing healthcare workers, then expanding to cover vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions,” the scientists pointed out. Further doses will then be made available based on a country’s need, vulnerability and COVID-19 threat. The scientists said it is equally important to ensure sustained surveillance, tracing, test and treat. “Vaccines will help us achieve herd immunity but, until then we need to keep practicing the non-pharmacological measures to prevent infection and spread,” said Dr. Swaminathan and Dr. Kuganantham.
“What is clear is that the virus has a foothold in most parts of the world, and transmission increases as soon as public health control measures are relaxed. Non- pharmacological interventions such as physical distancing and mask-wearing will reduce spread and, ideally, keep infection and death rates down,” they observed. Quoting the global health security index published last year, they said no country is prepared to handle an epidemic or a pandemic. It concluded that most countries lack foundational health systems capacities vital for epidemic and pandemic response.
Besides posing unprecedented challenges to global health systems, the pandemic has amplified systemic inequalities in the society – social, economic, gender-related disparities, which can have horrendous implications on people’s health. In many countries, SARS-CoV-2 infections and COVID-19 deaths disproportionately affected racial and ethnic minorities. This has demonstrated that the poor, less educated, and marginalized are disproportionately affected, they said quoting a report. Women and children have been disproportionately impacted and an estimated another 100 million people will fall into poverty.
With regard to reopening of schools, the scientists said schools operate not in isolation but within the community. Thus, anything that affects the community affects the schools too. Data shows that even though the schools have moved online, around 463 million children across the world have no access to remote schooling. Education of one-third of world’s children has been affected and one in four countries presently do not have a reopening date for their schools.
“This has devastating outcomes that can affect the children for a lifetime. They will be more exposed to physical and emotional violence, more prone to be pushed to child labour, suffer sexual abuse and further intensify the cycle of poverty. We need the decision-makers to closely check the factors and ensure a safe environment for the children,” they stressed. There are many lessons from the pandemic that can be learnt to adapt and prepare for the future. A focus on gender and equity will be important. Equally important will be to build resilient health systems to effectively respond to crises. “This pandemic will come to an end, but the world needs to work together to ensure that we are better prepared next time. It is only through ‘Science and Solidarity that Solutions’ will be found,” they said.