Health official offers advice on choosing Covid-19 vaccines

Physician Dr Courtney Lewis says residents shouldn’t be worried about being used as ‘guinea pigs’ for the Covid-19 vaccines. He assures that the thousands of people who have participated in the clinical trials have already played that role for the rest of the world.
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By Orville Williams

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With four Covid-19 vaccine options now available to residents in Antigua and Barbuda, one of the country’s leading medical professionals is looking to help those who are still on the fence to make the appropriate selection.

In the early days of the public vaccination programme, the only brand available was the Oxford/AstraZeneca, as vaccine availability was in a precarious state. This remained the case for a while, before the country began receiving additional vaccines and ultimately procured doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech, Sinopharm and Sputnik V.

The bad press that followed reports of the AstraZeneca vaccine being linked to dangerous blood clots found in some recipients, led many to voice their disdain and call for more vaccine options.

It should be mentioned that this call also followed Prime Minister Gaston Browne’s declaration earlier in the year that he had taken the Moderna vaccine, as opposed to ‘the one that everyone else is expected to take’.

“When we only had AstraZeneca available to us, it posed one problem because there was a set of people that wanted choices. And now that you have choices, there’s a separate problem – which one do I choose?”

That is how Dr Courtney Lewis, Deputy Chairman of the National Technical Working Group on Covid-19 vaccines, looks at the current situation.

Speaking on the matter on Observer AM on Wednesday, he noted that there isn’t much of a choice for persons under the age of 18, as the Pfizer vaccine is the only one approved for that age group at this point.

The issue, he says, lies mainly with those who are over 18 years old.

“For adults above 18 years…I still stick to the mandate of taking the vaccine that is available. So, if you show up to a particular clinic on a day and they say we’ve just ended all of our Pfizer [doses], we only have AstraZeneca, Sputnik or Sinopharm left, you take the one that’s available to you in the clinic.

“If it is that all of [the doses] are available, then whichever one sounds best to you [based] on your own research, just take that one,” he advises.

The physician also sought to dispel one of the primary concerns among those who are anti-vaccine or vaccine hesitant: the fear that those being inoculated are being experimented on.

With Covid-19 being a ‘new virus’ and the vaccines manufactured to fight it also considered ‘new’, many are of the belief that there is not yet enough information for the vaccines to be considered desirable.

Dr Lewis assures though that this is not the case, with thousands of people already contributing to the vaccines’ ‘experimental’ stage.

“With a new vaccine, it’s difficult to tell someone that you know everything about it. We tend to know quite a bit about these vaccines now, because they’ve all gone through the required clinical trial stages; really and truly that was the experiment,” he says.

“Those 40,000-plus people in the Pfizer/BioNTech trials who volunteered their services to make sure that this vaccine was safe and efficacious for the rest of us, they were [actually] the guinea pigs; we aren’t really the guinea pigs.”

He does acknowledge, however, that the trials are not completely foolproof, despite the extensive testing and research involved. Constant monitoring of the vaccines and their effect, he says, ensures that the manufacturers can readily address any untoward occurrences.

“When you’re taking something new, you’re still hoping that it works the way it was proven to work in a trial. There’s no way to completely remove the ‘what’s going to happen’ factor,” he explains.

“You have a very good understanding and a very good estimate as to what will happen, but it’s very difficult to remove it, which is why you still track the use of a vaccine even after it’s made available to the population.”

So far, more than 30,000 people have been fully vaccinated in Antigua and Barbuda, and the most recent vaccine to be rolled out to the local population is the Pfizer. It is currently being used exclusively for the country’s youth population, but the Health Ministry is gearing up to offer it to the adult population in the near future.

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