THE next phase in Pakistan’s fightback against the novel coronavirus has begun with appropriate fanfare. On Tuesday at the PM Office, in the presence of Prime Minister Imran Khan, anaesthetist and critical care specialist Prof Rana Imran Sikander became the first person in the country to be vaccinated against the disease.

The first batch of Covid-19 vaccines, totalling half a million doses manufactured by Sinopharm, had arrived in Islamabad from Beijing on Monday, and the federal government dispatched the provinces their share from it the next day. Inoculation drives on a provincial level began yesterday. The National Command and Operation Centre deserves plaudits for the smooth start to the mammoth countrywide campaign. Judging by the detailed plan it has drawn up, considerable effort is being expended to ensure that vaccine procurement keeps up with the pace of inoculation, and a report in this paper yesterday quoted SAPM on Health Dr Faisal Sultan as saying he does not believe the supply side will pose a problem.

“We are more concerned about the demand side,” he said. The fear is that of the 70m of the adult population who should be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, as per health experts’ view, a considerable number — up to 30m — may refuse it or opt out for one reason or another.

That is among several concerns in a situation where, at least to some extent, the authorities are flying blind. The novel coronavirus has been around for a little over a year. It is only recently that health professionals have got a handle on managing severe cases of Covid-19 to a certain extent, while the long-term and sometimes devastating implications of the disease are still being observed and understood.

The immune system’s response to the vaccines, despite extensive human trials leading up to the approval stage, remains the subject of some debate. Consider that health authorities in France and Sweden have cleared AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine but advised against administering it to people over 65 years; that is at variance with the EU’s decision to approve the vaccine for adults of all ages. Meanwhile, a major UK study has confirmed that most people who have been infected with the coronavirus have antibodies in their blood for at least six months. Earlier, the consensus on viral immune response had considered three months as a minimum period during which one was highly unlikely to be reinfected.

One hopes that the government’s timeline regarding the procurement of the remaining batches of the vaccines is a realistic one. In the meantime it must prepare the Pakistani public about possible side effects of inoculation so that misinformation does not discourage people from registering. Further, regular updates with disaggregated data about those being inoculated will go a long way towards countering inevitable rumours about ‘elite’ individuals jumping the queue. Instilling trust in the transparency of the process is critical.

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2021

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