W.H.O. WARNS COVID CRISIS FAR FROM OVER AS MASSIVE VACCINE ROLL-OUT BEGINS

Russia covid vaccine

By Donnelly McCleland

Global coronavirus infections surged past 65 million on Friday [5 December] even as countries doubled down on restrictions and plans to roll out vaccines gathered pace. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned against complacency and what it said was an erroneous belief that because vaccines are on the near-horizon, the Covid-19 crisis is over. Britain on Wednesday [2 December] became the first Western country to approve a vaccine for general use, piling pressure on other countries to follow suit swiftly. A growing number of leaders are saying they plan to be vaccinated in public to build trust. Anti-vaccine sentiment has been rising in recent years, which could hamper efforts to reach a sufficient number of people to effectively slow down the spread of the virus. (AFP)

Vaccine roll-out begins in numerous countries

On Tuesday 7 December, the UK became the first Western nation to start vaccinating its general population, in what has been described as “a decisive watershed in defeating the coronavirus”. An estimated 800,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine will be administered from about 70 hospitals nationwide, and up to four million is expected to be given by the end of the month. The programme aims to protect the most vulnerable – initially the over-80s and some healthcare staff – and return the nation to normal life.

On Saturday 4 December, Russia’s coronavirus taskforce said it began distributing the Sputnik V vaccine to 70 clinics across the capital Moscow, marking Russia’s first mass Covid-19 immunisation. The Russian-made vaccine is being made available first to doctors and other medical workers, teachers, and social workers because they run the highest risk of exposure to the disease. Scientists have raised concerns about the speed at which Russia has worked, giving the regulatory go-ahead for its vaccines, and launching mass vaccinations before full safety and efficacy trials had been completed. The Sputnik V vaccine is administered in two injections, the second dose given 21 days after the first.

According to AP: “Provincial governments across China are placing orders for experimental, domestically made coronavirus vaccines, though health officials have yet to say how well they work or how they may reach the country’s 1.4 billion people.” China’s foreign minister said during a UN meeting last week that developers were speeding up the final testing. Even without final approval, over a million Chinese healthcare workers, and others deemed to be at high risk of infection have received the experimental vaccinations under emergency use permission.

On 2 December, the Japanese government passed a bill where the government commits to covering all vaccine costs for Japan’s 126 million residents. The country has reportedly already secured Covid-19 vaccines for 60 million people from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and for a further 25 million people from biotech firm Moderna. It has also been confirmed that it will receive a further 120 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine.

Vaccine allocation and availability

According to a UN statement (in Reliefweb): “At the national and international levels, COVID-19 has brought to the fore systemic inequalities, aggravated pre-existing institutional weaknesses including in health, food, and procurement systems, and highlighted a lack of access to quality, accessible and affordable health care for all. Socio-economic inequality has deepened even further.” Oxfam expressed concern (on 17 September 2020): “51 per cent of the [Covid-19 vaccine] doses to be produced based on current capacity have already been reserved for countries with just 13 per cent of the global population. If the rest of the world depends on the same manufacturing facilities, they will have to wait for them to deliver on their pre-orders and hope that more doses can be produced before too many more die or become seriously ill.”

Long before the roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccines began, countless discussions were had over complex and controversial issues involving public opinion, diplomacy, economics, public health, and other considerations. Many national leaders, international organisations, and vaccine producers recognise that one central factor in this decision-making is ethics, yet little progress has been made toward delineating what constitutes “fair international distribution of the vaccine.” Many have endorsed “equitable distribution of COVID-19…vaccine” without describing a framework or recommendations. Organisations such the Medecins Sans Frontieres, often on the frontline delivering vaccines, say locking in advanced deals with pharmaceutical companies creates “a dangerous trend of vaccine nationalism by richer nations”.

The WHO has been working with the epidemic response group, CEPI (Collation of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), and the Vaccine Alliance of governments and organisations, known as GAVI, to try to level the playing field. Part of this has been the COVAX facility – which has a unique objective of “making sure that all countries have access to the broadest portfolio of COVID-19 vaccine candidates across a range of technologies, regardless of their ability to pay.” It is specifically designed to maximise the chances of success by investing in the development and manufacture of numerous vaccine candidates at the same time. Currently (at the time of writing) 184 economies have committed to participate in the COVAX Facility, including 78 higher-income economies, which represents a global effort to ensure that by 2021, 64% of the world’s population has access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. China recently joined COVAX, whereas the USA and Russia have not.

China has said it will ensure their vaccines are affordable for developing countries and have actively pursued deals across the world. Chinese pharmaceutical companies are using more traditional techniques than Western developers. They say, unlike Pfizer’s vaccine, which must be kept frozen at temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit), theirs can be stored at 2 to 8 C (36 to 46 F). China has at least five vaccines from four producers being tested in more than a dozen countries including Russia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Mexico. On Sunday 6 December, 1.2 million doses of the Chinese company Sinovac’s vaccine arrived in Indonesia, according to government sources.

Jacob Mardell, an analyst from Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), explained in ABC News article, that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s initial pledge of an eventual Chinese vaccine as a “global public good” had been the “light at the end of the tunnel for a world desperate for a reprieve”. Mardell warned, however: “Beijing tends to talk in terms of ‘win-win’ and the public good, but it will surely leverage the provision of this life-saving technology — for commercial and diplomatic profit.”

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

The Covid pandemic has presented many unique opportunities to demonstrate Christ – His character, His sacrificial love – to a desperate world. The issue of a vaccine is no different – Christians in the medical field, and in other areas of influence, have a crucial role to play in these conversations around the ethics of access and distribution of the Covid vaccine. Christians have, through the ages, partnered with health officials to treat diseases like polio, HIV, malaria, and Ebola. Too often, in recent times, poorer communities or nations have been last in line to receive life-saving medication. What happened in the case of HIV is that the countries that needed it the most—those of sub-Saharan Africa—were the last to get treatment and access (almost a decade after wealthier Western nations) because they could not afford it. Christians within positions of influence need to be the voice for these most-needy/vulnerable communities, and not allow a similar outcome to transpire again with the Covid-19 pandemic and roll-out of the vaccine.

The WHO’s COVAX system suggests allocating each country enough doses to cover three per cent of its population and then work up to 20 per cent, which would roughly include healthcare workers, people over 65, and younger people with high-risk conditions. But Jeff Barrows, senior vice president of bioethics and public policy for the Christian Medical and Dental Association suggests: “Instead of prioritising equal percentages for each country under COVAX, leaders could consider that among poor nations, the risks and burdens of the pandemic are not the same.” Barrows prefers a plan proposed by the US National Academy of the Sciences (NAS) that puts health care workers, those living in elderly care facilities, and adults with the highest health risks first, followed by educators, homeless adults, prisoners, and so on.  Barrows maintains: “It is more nebulous than a simple percentage and similar plans could be adapted for other countries.”

Another crucial area where Christians can play a role is in the sharing of accurate information. The coronavirus pandemic has birthed an alarming number of hoaxes, conspiracy theories and fake news, which has led to assaults, arson and even death. According to an article in Christianity Today (17 November 2020): “For the health of their communities, some Christians have spoken up to share accurate information about vaccination and curb conspiracy theories circulating on social media.” Elizabeth Bukusi, a researcher, and bioethicist in Kenya who participates in the global COVID-19 Clinical Research Coalition explained how in Kenya, some churches played the role of a ‘voice of reason’ where many people were hesitant to trust their government: “Some churches actually played a role in helping demystify the research concepts (of vaccine trials).” In the US, the Christian Medical and Dental Association hosted discussions at Dallas Theological Seminary aimed at educating on the vaccine and addressing ethical controversies, like distribution and foetal tissue use in the development of the vaccine.

The coronavirus has proven to be an equaliser – it infects righteous and unrighteous alike. But it is also blatantly unequal – the aged, the poor, the marginalised, and the already sick suffer and die disproportionately compared to the wealthy, the strong, and the privileged. Who knows how long Christians across the world will be called on to play their part in addressing the many needs which this pandemic has caused? But His assurance in Matthew 28:20b continues to ring true: “I am with you always [remaining with you perpetually—regardless of circumstance, and on every occasion], even to the end of the age.” (AMP)

Please pray with us:

  • For those in decision-making positions to act righteously and fairly
  • For Christians within positions of influence to be discerning and courageous, and led by the Spirit
  • For believers to be ambassadors of hope and truth, in Christ

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Image: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

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