Vaccine expectations

11 Nov 2020

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THE world breathed a collective sigh of relief early in the week as drug maker Pfizer announced a significant update regarding its coronavirus vaccine trial. The American multinational pharmaceutical company said early analysis of its Covid-19 vaccine shows more than 90pc efficacy — a development that will give billions of people hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight. The interim analysis of the vaccine is indeed promising, as it looked at the first 94 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among the more than 43,000 volunteers who got either two doses of the vaccine or a placebo and found that less than 10pc of infections were in participants who had been given the vaccine. Yet, even as medical experts are celebrating this vaccine breakthrough, expectations around it must be managed, especially since mass-producing it and rolling it over to the rest of the world will not come without challenges. Who will be inoculated first and how much it will cost are also significant factors, as there are many countries where cases and death tolls are alarmingly high but that are not in a strong economic position that would allow them to procure the drug.

Where Pakistan is concerned, a major problem will be maintaining the cold supply chain and establishing vaccine logistics — something that has marred efforts on the polio vaccination front. Experts have said the Pfizer vaccine will have to be stored at “ultra-cold temperatures” of -70°C until the day it is used — a requirement that is beyond the capacity of everyday refrigerators and one which makes the likelihood of holding the drug in regular clinics a challenge. This task is further complicated by the requirement that the vaccine must be administered in two doses, three weeks apart. As the vaccine manufacturers seek emergency authorisation and FDA approvals, the authorities in Pakistan must consider these challenges and formulate a plan for effective vaccination if and when the time comes.

Meanwhile, the government at the federal and provincial levels must do everything to curb the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases. This week, the NCOC revealed startling figures that suggest that community spread is rampant — increased testing is necessary to get a better idea of the actual extent. The countrywide positivity ratio is at an alarming 4.5pc, with some places such as Hyderabad, Gilgit and Multan recording a positivity ratio of over 15pc. In the last 24 hours (at the time of writing), the virus had claimed 24 lives. As hospitals get full and doctors become overwhelmed, it is critical for the authorities to enforce strict SOPs to prevent a doomsday scenario. Relying on an American or Chinese vaccine is impractical, as it may be months before either becomes available in Pakistan. Instead, the authorities should curb large public gatherings and the flouting of restrictions and irresponsible behaviour by its own members when it comes to prevention mechanisms.

Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2020