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Speedy delivery of COVID-19 vaccine a huge challenge globally: WHO experts

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As India launches the world’s most ambitious and biggest vaccination drive against COVID-19, the country will encounter the formidable challenge of rapidly scaling up distribution of the vaccines to secure immunity for its entire population, said Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist of WHO, and Dr Hamsadvani Kuganantham, Consultant, WHO.

The two prominent Indian scientists at WHO have said that this daunting challenge is not only for India but also for all the governments across the globe as they start inoculating their populations to tackle the pandemic.

Currently, there are 45 candidate vaccines in clinical evaluation and 156 candidate vaccines in pre-clinical evaluation, the WHO scientists said. COVAX, a global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, is jointly led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance set up by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“It is the only global initiative that is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries,” they wrote in an article for Manorama Yearbook 2021.

“The goal of COVAX is to deliver two billion doses of safe, effective vaccines that have passed regulatory approval and/or WHO prequalification, by the end of 2021. These vaccines will be offered equally to all participating countries, proportional to their populations, initially prioritising healthcare workers, then expanding to cover vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions,” the scientists pointed out. Further doses will then be made available based on a country’s need, vulnerability and COVID-19 threat.

The scientists said it is equally important to ensure sustained surveillance, tracing, test and treat. “Vaccines will help us achieve herd immunity but, until then we need to keep practicing the non-pharmacological measures to prevent infection and spread,” said Dr Swaminathan and Dr Kuganantham.

“What is clear is that the virus has a foothold in most parts of the world, and transmission increases as soon as public health control measures are relaxed. Non-pharmacological interventions such as physical distancing and mask-wearing will reduce spread and, ideally, keep infection and death rates down,” they observed.

Quoting the global health security index published last year, they said no country is prepared to handle an epidemic or a pandemic. It concluded that most countries lack foundational health systems capacities vital for epidemic and pandemic response. With regard to reopening of schools, the scientists said schools operate not in isolation but within the community.

“This has devastating outcomes that can affect the children for a lifetime. They will be more exposed to physical and emotional violence, more prone to be pushed to child labour, suffer sexual abuse and further intensify the cycle of poverty. We need the decision-makers to closely check the factors and ensure a safe environment for the children,” they stressed.

Observing that there are many lessons from the pandemic that can be learnt to adapt and prepare for the future, the experts said, “This pandemic will come to an end, but the world needs to work together to ensure that we are better prepared next time. It is only through science and solidarity that solutions will be found.”

(Edits by EP News Bureau)

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