WHO warns vaccine no 'magic bullet'

WHO warns vaccine no 'magic bullet'

Logistics providers on 'war footing' as planning begins for massive distribution effort

Britain is training healthcare workers to administer the Covid-19 vaccine after it became the first country to approve one for public use. (AFP Photo)
Britain is training healthcare workers to administer the Covid-19 vaccine after it became the first country to approve one for public use. (AFP Photo)

WASHINGTON: The World Health Organization has warned that vaccines will be no “magic bullet” for the coronavirus crisis as nations gear up for a massive rollout to tackle surging infections.

The word of caution comes as the United States clocked a record number of Covid-19 cases for a second day in a row, with the country preparing for what President-elect Joe Biden has called a “dark winter”.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday recommended “universal face mask use” indoors for the first time, and Biden said he would scale down his January inauguration ceremony to mitigate the virus risk.

While several vaccines have proven effective in trials and large-scale public vaccinations are expected begin within weeks, the WHO warned against vaccine complacency. There was an erroneous belief that the Covid-19 crisis is over with jabs on the horizon, it said.

“Vaccines do not equal zero Covid,” said WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan, adding that not everyone will be able to receive the medicine early next year.

“Vaccination will add a major, major, powerful tool to the tool kit that we have. But by themselves, they will not do the job.”

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said progress on vaccines signalled “light at the end of the tunnel”.

But he cautioned against the “growing perception that the pandemic is over” with the virus still spreading fast, putting enormous pressure on hospitals and healthcare workers.

The WHO says 51 candidate vaccines are currently being tested on humans, with 13 reaching final-stage mass testing.

Britain on Wednesday became the first Western country to approve an inoculation, from Pfizer-BioNTech, for general use, piling pressure on other countries to swiftly follow suit.

The United States is expected to give a green light later this month. Belgium, France and Spain have said jabs will begin in January for the most vulnerable.

Huge logistical challenge

With the imminent arrival of vaccines that need storage at ultra-low temperatures, US companies are preparing for a massive logistical effort to aid their distribution.

Businesses specialising in insulating containers are on a war footing after Pfizer and BioNTech said their vaccine needs to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius.

The meat processing giant Smithfield said it was ready to put the cold rooms at its abattoirs at the disposal of vaccine rollout operations.

The US logistics giant UPS is producing 500 kilogrammes of dry ice an hour in its depots and has developed portable freezers capable of storing the vaccines at temperatures down to -80C.

In Southeast Asia, Singapore Airlines has said it will prioritise freight capacity to ship vaccines and will conduct test flights soon to trial the process.

SIA will make cargo space available to prioritise shipments across key trade lanes, the Straits Times reported. Boeing 747-400 freighters, as well as passenger aircraft, will be deployed to boost capacity where needed.

The Business Times reported the carrier has seven Boeing 747-400 freighters ready, while its passenger aircraft fleet is also ready to be deployed to ramp up capacity.

While airlines have been laid low by the pandemic as passenger demand collapsed, the companies will be the workhorses of the bid to eradicate it by hauling billions of vials. The International Air Transport Association has described the operation as the “most complex logistical exercise ever”. 

Germany-based BioNTech said it is on track to produce 50 million doses of vaccine with its US partner Pfizer this year, easing concerns that they might miss production targets.

As of Friday, the companies had made the majority of the promised supply for this year, BioNTech said in a statement to Bloomberg. For next year, they’re looking for ways to increase production capacity beyond a promised 1.3 billion doses.

Scepticism and misinformation

Standing in the way of a successful vaccine rollout are growing signs of vaccine scepticism, with misinformation and mistrust colouring public acceptance of inoculation.

Several high-profile figures have pledged to receive the vaccine in public in an effort to build confidence, including Biden, Tedros and former US presidents Barack Obama, George W Bush and Bill Clinton.

Biden too says he’ll take a vaccine to demonstrate its safety to Americans and will work to ensure the vaccine and treatment of any side effects are provided free.

He was responding to a question about wariness among Americans, and particularly among African Americans, over taking a vaccine developed quickly and under a cloud of pressure from President Donald Trump’s administration.

“I think that my taking the vaccine and people seeing me take that vaccine is going to give some confidence,” Biden said. “In the meantime I need to make sure that the vaccine is both free and available. And that any follow-up to the vaccine is free and available — that relates to any health complications from it. So there’s ways we can deal with some of these issues.”

The United States recorded 225,000 new infections on Friday — the second daily record in a row for the world’s worst-hit nation.

Biden said the surging number of cases meant he would scale back his inauguration ceremony set for January in Washington DC.

“We’re going to follow the science and the recommendations of the experts,” he told reporters. “So it’s highly unlikely there’ll be a million people on The Mall.”

More than 65 million people have contracted Covid-19 globally with the death toll from the disease topping 1.5 million.

British medical chiefs said the arrival of a vaccine should result in deaths falling “significantly” by early next year but warned social mixing over Christmas could cause another spike before then.

Italy is seeing a dramatic resurgence of infections after it largely tamped down an earlier outbreak by enforcing a strict lockdown, while Latin America and the Caribbean has seen an 18% spike in cases in a week.

Other countries are announcing holiday restrictions, with Switzerland banning Christmas carolling in the streets and Madrid cancelling most New Year events in the city centre.

France added 627 deaths, bringing its total to 54,767. But hospitalisations and patients in intensive care continued their decline from a mid-November peak.

The French are increasingly unwilling to get vaccinated, with 53% of those in a November survey planning to get the shot, down from 64% in July, health authorities said.

Swedish health authorities also say they need to convert vaccine doubters if they’re to reach enough people to achieve herd immunity.

Only 46% of Swedes say they want to be vaccinated, while 26% say they don’t, according to a recent Novus poll. Sweden expects to get enough vaccines to immunise a fifth of the population in the first quarter, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said.

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