Monday, November 23, 2020

Let 2021 be not the year of just vaccination alone!

If 2020 has been all about the once-in-a-century pandemic, 2021 is all set to be about a mammoth exercise never witnessed before by this generation or any generation before it.

World is all set to roll out something it has never done before. A plan to vaccinate all human beings living on the face of the earth, against just one new infectious virus.

There are tons of ambiguities involved in the whole process. Will it be effective as planned? Will it be safe as expected? Will an overwhelming majority of the world population agree to be vaccinated? Or will it run into unanticipated risks, which may even derail the global vaccination program?

India has its own set of additional questions, beginning with who is going to pay for vaccinating over 138 crore citizens. The Government has indicated that it is considering free vaccination, but with major vaccine makers expecting prices ranging from $37 to $10 per dose, the country is staring at a bill of over Rs. 1 lakh crore, even at the lower end of the pricing spectrum.

Another model to follow is what stalwarts like NR Narayana Murthy recently advocated, which is to encourage the major vaccine makers to supply the billions of doses without any profits, and for WHO to work with countries to find ways and means to compensate these vaccine makers later on.

But with listed Big Pharma players like Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca etc dominating the show, the supply of Covid-19 vaccine is likely to be on a profit basis itself.  

Leveraging its manufacturing capacity as the world’s largest vaccine maker, India had pre-ordered hundreds of millions of doses of the conventional vaccine by Oxford and AstraZeneca, but is now facing a dilemma as a new breed of vaccines called mRNA vaccine by Moderna, Pfizer & others is more likely to be mass produced and deployed across the world, as it is much easier and faster to mass produce.

The effectiveness of the global vaccination program is also open for debate. None other than Bill Gates, who has been the largest donor to vaccine makers apart from world governments, has recently opined that global vaccination will succeed only if 99% of the world population is administered a vaccine which has 99% success rate.

The billionaire philanthropist says such a scenario is not possible in many countries. While poor countries or its citizens can’t afford such an expensive program, in rich countries like his own USA, there is massive resistance to any mandatory vaccination program, with millions already thronging social media sites like Twitter to announce that they won’t be vaccinating themselves or their families!

According to Gates, what this means is that Covid-19 would continue to survive and thrive in many pockets of the world, again spreading through global travel, thereby derailing the ambitious vaccination program itself. Based on this, the Microsoft co-founder has also predicted that he doesn’t expect the world to come back to the pre-Covid normal at all.

Coming from someone who predicted that a respiratory pandemic like Covid-19 is a real possibility, years before it happened, his views are not to be taken lightly.

What these all point to is a profound fact. While 2021 is going to be the year of vaccination, and governments are going to be seriously distracted by the economics and logistics of this never-before mammoth operation, mankind would be better served by not looking upon this vaccination program as its sole saviour from the current crisis.

People should be made aware that much of Covid-19’s risk is coming from its co-morbidities like chronic inflammatory diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, organ failure etc. And they should be encouraged by all means to take charge of their own health by preventing or managing these conditions as much as possible through fundamental lifestyle changes in diet, exercise, sleep, stress management etc as well as medicines when needed.

Secondly, despite this overwhelming buzz about vaccines, as though it is the only way to acquire immunity against Covid-19, it shouldn’t be forgotten that hundreds of millions of healthy people across the world are already acquiring natural immunity to Covid-19 without getting seriously infected by it, through minimal exposure to the virus which happens for instance through interactions while wearing masks. That is what the global antibody tests reveal.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 is not just a flu-like respiratory disease with negligible risk, but a serious systemic disease which can kill or seriously disable many who are susceptible to its damaging mechanisms. As such, all exposure to it without masks, that would deliver a lethal viral load, should be strictly avoided.

But it is also equally true that with masks on, people are slowly getting immunized naturally through exposure to tiny doses of the virus that get through the masks. This will eventually lead to herd immunity across the globe, especially in mask wearing countries.

The global Covid-19 vaccination program is not a bad thing at all. Nor is it unnecessary. It will greatly aid in speeding up the natural process of acquiring herd immunity. But to think of the vaccination program as the only way out from this crisis, is not wise. Much wiser is to improve overall health of the population and to continue effective steps like the wearing of good quality masks.

Government machineries are going to be seriously distracted in 2021, running behind this vaccination program. That is again not wise, especially in poverty-stricken countries like India, where lack of economic progress can be even more deadly for health than a lack in vaccination, as more people will succumb to poverty, malnutrition, diseases, social tensions, debt, suicides etc.

It should never be forgotten that the world came out of the comparable Spanish Flu pandemic, around 100 years back, not through a global vaccination program, but through wearing of masks, treatment of affected patients, quarantines and eventual acquisition of herd immunity across the world.

The Spanish Flu virus and its variants are still out there across our planet, and gather strength every year during its season, but it can never ever hope to be a pandemic again due to the collective herd immunity against it. So can mankind overcome Covid-19 eventually.

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