Vaccine Not A Silver Bullet – WHO Officials Plead With Public To Maintain Other “Public Health Measures”  
People wear face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus as they commute inside a metro station amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

New York City – Echoing a message issued by WHO’s Geneva office today, WHO officials in the Agency’s Americas Regional Office stressed that stronger public health measures are desperately needed, alongside vaccines, to reduce transmission and the risk of even more variants emerging. 

“The vaccine is not a silver bullet. The vaccine will not stop transmission next week,” said  Jarbas Barbosa, Assistant Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), in a briefing in Washington, DC.

Dr Carissa F Etienne, PAHO Director

“Vaccines are not going to solve our problems immediately,” said PAHO regional director Carissa Etienne. She pleaded with policymakers and the public to continue observing social distancing, masking and hygiene measures to reduce virus transmission..

“We have to do everything that we can to reduce the circulation of the virus. And to do that we have to use the proven public health measures,” she said, adding, “Please do not let your guard down as we await vaccines, and even when we get the vaccines. We will simultaneously reinforce all public health measures [in doing this].” The WHO appeal coincided with an announcement by the United States Centers for Disease Control of new recommendations for “tight fit” or “double masksto improve their virus filtration. 

In Geneva, WHO’s Kate O”Brien issued a similar message – during an announcement of a WHO expert recommendation to approve use of the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine

“The issue of whether or not a person who has been vaccinated can take their foot off the pedal and stop using a mask, stop all the interventions we’ve been communication for the whole pandemic – those interventions need to continue for individuals who have been vaccinated and for communities of people as the vaccine is rolling out,” she said. 

Reaching Migrants and Other Marginalized Groups With Vaccines Also Critical  
Dr Ciro Ugarte, Director of Health Emergencies, PAHO

The WHO has set the initial goal of providing vaccines for at least 20% of the population for countries that are part of the COVAX agreement. In the PAHO region, 37 countries are participating in COVAX.  But that coverage will fall far short of what is ultimately needed to really make a dent in transmission, officials said. 

Latin America and the Caribbean will need to immunize approximately 500 million people to be able to control the pandemic, said Etienne, PAHO Regional Director. The PAHO region itself has more than 934 million people. 

Dr Ciro Ugarte, Director of Health Emergencies at PAHO, also pointed to issues of inequity that have plagued the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent vaccine rollout, especially among migrant groups in the Americas region. 

Migrants need to become “regularized” in regards to their legal status in countries, which would allow them to access health services and the COVID vaccine, Ugarte said. 

Fortunately, many of the migrants working in the health sector are likely to be included in the first phase of the vaccine. However, others work in informal sectors, preventing them from receiving the vaccine or even being incorporated for future vaccine rollout as many of them remain (and would like to remain) unidentified. 

These issues of vaccine exclusivity that may prevent migrants from receiving the vaccines could even act as a barrier to controlling the pandemic in many of these countries. 

Getting Vaccines Approved Through National Regulatory Mechanisms & Stepping Up Variant Surveillance Also Critical
Dr Jarbas Barbosa, Assistant Director, PAHO

 PAHO officials emphasised the need for national health authorities to actively monitor the pandemic trends in their countries, including the emergence and spread of variants. The three variants of greatest concern, which were first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, have already been detected in twenty countries in the Americas. 

The WHO has already called attention to the potential reduction in vaccine efficacy against variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, particularly against the South African strain. Real-time data collection as vaccine campaigns get underway will allow researchers to understand the real effect of these new variants on vaccine efficacy. 

Countries in the Americas are already uploading and publishing locally-identified genome variants in GISAID, a global platform for genomic data of influenza viruses and SARS-CoV-2. This information will contribute towards improved genomic surveillance. 

PAHO is providing countries with equipment for genome sequencing and technical guidance in the identification of variants.  But officials also called upon national authorities to also step in with more funding for their own laboratory networks. 

Ensuring that new vaccines receive rapid regulatory approval at national level is another key PAHO concern. PAHO has already asked countries to send their plans for regulatory review to the Agency, in order to identify needs and gaps. Thirty-one countries in the Americas region, which includes North America and Latin America and the Caribbean, have already shared their information, while twenty countries have yet to send in their plans for review. 

“It is not sufficient to have a vaccine, all the countries need to have all the regulatory mechanisms [in place] as well as licenses for importation,” said Barbosa. 

Image Credits: Flickr: IMF Photo/Joaquin Sarmiento, PAHO.

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