Medical experts have dispelled the notion that Covid-19 vaccines being used in Pakistan are not effective against different variants and urged citizens to get immunised as soon as possible while also taking precautionary measures.
Following a video message released by Sindh Health Minister Dr Azra Pechuho in which she confirmed the presence of new variants in the province and warned that vaccination might not work, questions were raised regarding whether there was any point in getting immunised.
Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health Dr Faisal Sultan said there is no evidence at present that suggests that Covid-19 vaccines will not protect against different variants.
"In other words, we must continue to vaccinate, and all the evidence at this time suggests that the protective effect will be retained," he said.
Responding to Dawn.com about the efficacy of getting vaccinated, the SAPM — in a video statement — said: "New mutations are sometimes neutral [with no effect on behavior] and sometimes come with some changes.
“For example, the B117 variant transmits more easily; some variants have slightly higher rates of re-infection.”
He said the formation of variants in viruses is simply a matter of normal evolution and “not surprising”.
“The B117 variant [first detected in the UK] is now commonplace across the world and is the predominant variant in many countries. Similarly, a few cases of B1351 [the South African variant] and P1 [the Brazilian variant] have been reported in Pakistan recently,” Dr Sultan said.
“Vaccination does not take away the need to use masks and other precautions. While we vaccinate and expand the programme to larger numbers, it is also crucial to keep following standard operating procedures (SOPs) for curbing the spread of the disease. These SOPs work against all variants."
Commenting on whether getting vaccinated will offer protection against different Covid strains, he said: “You can use the vaccines available in Pakistan with confidence. When it is your turn, you must go and get yourself vaccinated so that you can protect yourself from infection.”
In a statement to Dawn.com, the Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Society of Pakistan (MMIDSP) said that all Covid-19 vaccines provide protection against serious disease and death.
The association — which represents infectious disease specialists in the country — said that vaccinated individuals may get infected after being exposed to the virus, but said that the symptoms remained "mild".
“Because of a weakened immune system, the elderly may not develop robust immunity even after taking the full course of the vaccine. Such individuals may require additional booster doses.”
Stressing that this is an evolving situation, it added that currently there are no guidelines available to recommend routine booster doses.
“This issue will become clearer as new information emerges.
“Preliminary results are available on the efficacy of the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines against the UK, South African and Brazilian mutants. Results suggest that antibodies produced by the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines can effectively neutralise the variants,” the body said.
Dr Faisal Mahmood — head of the infectious diseases department at the Aga Khan University — acknowledged that the issue was complex.
“We know that the vaccines that have been tested on the South African variants (AstraZeneca, J&J, Novavax) are not as effective, but they still work to prevent serious disease.
“Other vaccines have not been checked (including SinoPharm, SinoVac, and CanSinoBio),” he said, but emphasised that citizens “should not forgo vaccination”.
WHO recommendations for Chinese vaccines
Following a closed-door meeting in March, Alejandro Cravioto — the chair of WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) — said the body hoped to issue recommendations on the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines by the end of April.
“The information that the companies shared publicly clearly indicates that they have levels of efficacy that would be compatible with WHO requirements," Cravioto said, referring to the group of independent experts' closed-door meeting.
"That means about 50 per cent (efficacy) and preferably close to or above 70 per cent and of course, they have all the safety data to show that this vaccine would cause no harm in humans."
Along with Pakistan, Sinopharm is currently being used in several countries including China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
No publicly released efficacy data of Sinopharm’s Covid-19 vaccine is available. However, its developer, Beijing Biological Products Institute, has said the vaccine is 79.34pc effective in preventing people from developing the disease based on interim data.
Sinovac’s vaccine showed varied efficacy readings of between 50.65ps and 83.5pc based on trials from Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia.