by Gemma Handy
Bringing Covid-19 vaccinations to market may have happened at breakneck speed, but no steps in ensuring their safety have been skipped.
That was the message from medical experts who took part in yesterday’s first-of-its-kind public consultation aimed at alleviating public anxiety as Antigua and Barbuda prepares for the arrival of its first batch of doses early next year.
Among the raft of speakers was Dr Courtney Lewis, an assistant professor at the American University of Antigua (AUA), who addressed lingering concerns surrounding the shots due to the quick pace of their development.
The US yesterday administered the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine, six days after the UK became the first country in the world to roll out the fastest vaccine ever created.
Dr Lewis also alluded to worries among members of the public that the global vaccination conversation was being dominated by voices from Big Pharma and governments with “vested interests”.
“No steps in the safety of the vaccine have been skipped … All of the conspiracy theories that claim companies are hiding what the vaccine actually does are false; that’s not allowed to happen,” he told the event staged at the Sandals Grande Antigua resort and broadcast online.
Dr Lewis blamed social media for the dissemination of inaccuracies and wild speculation.
“We don’t get news from CNN and BBC anymore; we get it from all these different social media outlets. You can’t peer review them, you can’t check references and see the validity of who’s presenting the information to you, but we soak it up anyway. Drama sells more than truth,” he said.
The AUA professor said agencies like the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) were “diligent and stringent” in what they allow populations to receive.
“It’s amazing to me that people are not surprised by how we went from a brick cellphone to a portable laptop in your hand like an iPhone within 15 to 20 years. Those advances don’t surprise anyone but the advances in medicine always do,” he rued.
Dr Lewis’ presentation included a breakdown of the trials vaccinations go through before being approved for mass use. They include tests on animals, before being tried out on small numbers of healthy adults. The next stage is clinical trials on people with characteristics – such as age and physical health – similar to those for whom the new vaccine is intended, followed by mass testing on thousands of people for efficacy and safety.
Surveillance remains underway after a vaccine is approved and licensed to monitor adverse events and study long-term effects.
Dr Lewis also discussed the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna shots. One reason for their speedy development is because they don’t require the lengthy process of growing organisms over a number of years as with traditional vaccines, he explained.
Unlike other shots which put a weakened or inactivated germ into the body to trigger an immune response, mRNA vaccines teach cells how to make a protein that provokes the immune response which then protects against infection if the real virus enters the body.
“Vaccines typically require years of research and testing before reaching the clinic, but in 2020 scientists embarked on a race to produce safe and effective coronavirus vaccines in record time,” he said.
Researchers are currently testing 58 vaccines in clinical trials on humans and 15 have reached the final stages of testing, Dr Lewis added.
Also speaking at yesterday’s consultation was Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas who reminded listeners that vaccinations had been in use in Antigua and Barbuda since the 1970s.
They were initially administered to prevent measles, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus, before being expanded to include mumps, rubella, hepatitis A, and Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib) which prevents infections like severe pneumonia and meningitis.
Dr Sealey-Thomas said the measles shot had seen an 80 percent reduction in worldwide deaths from the illness between 2000 and 2017. In 1980, measles claimed 2.6 million lives.
An imported case of the highly contagious disease in 2018 was stopped from spreading because 98 percent of the local population had been vaccinated, she added.
Consultant pathologist Dr Lester Simon offered insight into the history of vaccines, and how today’s counterparts work.
“Modern vaccines are created from killed bacteria or viruses, or fragments of proteins from these microbes. The proteins are recognised as antigens by our immune systems. This causes a mild immune response … Memory T-cells and B-cells remain ready to fight off the illness if it is encountered again,” his presentation explained.
Media and members of the public were invited to pose questions to the panelists who also featured representatives from PAHO.
Questions included concerns about side effects from the Pfizer vaccine which include a handful of cases of Bell’s palsy — a condition that temporarily weakens muscles in the face.
This is considered an extreme rarity and there is not yet enough evidence to confirm that it is related to the shot, one PAHO rep said.
Another query centred on which vaccines are included in the COVAX scheme being rolled out across the region. Listeners were told that the Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca shots were among those listed, while discussions remained underway about including the Pfizer shot.
Health Minister Molwyn Joseph told the event he wanted residents to make decisions about vaccines based on facts.
The fight against Covid is a national fight, he reiterated, paying tribute to the nation’s health care workers along with the general public, most of whom he said had displayed “outstanding” compliance with rules such as facemask-wearing.
But Joseph warned that the most challenging time of all is yet to come. With peak tourist season now underway – and abundant infections in the country’s biggest source markets of the US and UK – there will be no relaxation of protocols, he said.
Neither will the vaccine’s arrival mean any loosening of the rules, the health minister added.