Let's not be choosy about our Covid-19 vaccine

The point of inoculation is to save lives and avoid hospitalisation

A man and a woman walk past a huge health ministry COVID-19 vaccines announcement outside a medical centre in Dubai on February 16, 2021, as the Gulf emirates goes ahead its vaccination effort. The UAE, home to a population of around 10 million, has administered some 4.6 million doses of vaccine, making it the second-fastest per capita delivery in the world, after Israel. / AFP / Karim SAHIB
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Tuesday evening's UAE coronavirus briefing provided updates on the country's vaccination programme, with more than 10.4 million vaccine doses now administered nationwide.

At an earlier briefing we had heard that two-thirds of eligible groups have been vaccinated. In some age categories, including the over-60s, the uptake has been higher. Officials this week said that society and government were “working together” to keep up momentum.

It was also reported that the UAE is now ranked eighth globally, and first in the Arab world, on Bloomberg’s international Covid resilience index, which looks at a range of indicators to measure the effectiveness of a country’s pandemic response. Singapore topped the table, overtaking New Zealand in the process, which fell to second spot as its vaccination programme has been slow to gather momentum. The UAE, meanwhile, rose three places.

UAE officials have been clear, however, that more needs to be done, reflecting the broader sense that there is little room for complacency even when data appears to paint an encouraging picture.

Addressing this point, Dr Saif Al Dhaheri, spokesperson for the National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority, earlier this month discussed some instances of vaccine hesitancy among sections of the community.

“Your hesitation today is an obstacle to our goals,” he said at a briefing. "It puts your family, loved ones and community at risk. The vaccine is our best means to recover and return to a normal life."

While there are good reasons why some members of society are unable to receive the vaccine – those who are too young, who may have allergies or underlying health conditions, among other reasons – the hesitancy of others is seen as a risk in the daily battle to recover ground lost to the pandemic.

Why people have delayed is a point of conjecture, although choice may have been a contributory factor, meaning some may have been tempted to delay while they wait for a particular vaccine to become licensed.

Dr Farida Al Hosani, health sector spokesperson, confirmed on Tuesday in an interview with The National that vaccine options will be available for the foreseeable future but added that no one option was better than another. The choice was simply there to spur community uptake and because "the UAE always tries to bring the best for its people".

The Sinopharm vaccine was initially the only approved vaccine, but both the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer-Biontech vaccine were subsequently given the go-ahead, as well as the Sputnik V, which has been approved for emergency use.

Dr Farida Al Hosani, spokeswoman for the UAE government's health authorities, said the country is seeing 'good progress' in Covid-19 vaccine take-up. Courtesy Oloum Aldar

Each of the available vaccines do the job they are meant to do, which is to save lives. It is easy to lose sight of that when there is so much talk of vaccine delivery helping to open up international travel and movement once more.

Data released by the Abu Dhabi Public Health Centre this year found that the Sinopharm vaccine was more than 90 per cent effective in preventing hospitalisation and 95 per cent effective against admission to intensive care.

Those data points are a reminder that vaccines are primarily there to protect communities from infection, rather than being vehicles to enable complete freedom of movement for the inoculated, which is the implied definition of so-called vaccine passports, a subject of widespread discussion around the world.

In that same interview, Dr Al Hosani cautioned against travelling abroad this summer if you were not fully vaccinated or intending to journey to somewhere in the world where the risk of infection was high.

Her words served as a reminder that we need to be cautious about both the terminology and application of vaccine passports.

Most of us connect such passports with the idea that getting vaccinated will open up international borders. Access to vaccines will certainly speed our journey to the latter, by helping to protect and save lives, but it is misleading to promote the idea of vaccine passports as freedom-guaranteeing status symbols. That kind of symbolism is all wrong.

Healthcare workers and relatives carry Shashikantbhai Parekh, a patient with breathing problem, out from an ambulance for treatment at a COVID-19 hospital, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ahmedabad, India, April 28, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave
The wholesale opening of borders in the longer term should hinge on regular testing as much as vaccination

The very dynamic situations in India and Turkey this month are a reminder of how quickly borders can close, at which point a vaccine passport is largely redundant, save for it providing proof that the bearer has been inoculated and is less at risk than someone who has not been.

A return to the idea of certification, the 20th-century response to the post-1918 pandemic, is more appropriate than a so-called vaccine passport, which also could potentially discriminate against those who are unable to take some vaccines, such as pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers, vulnerable community members and children.

So, we need to move carefully in the next phase. Test events should be carried out, such as the plans that are being made for the President's Cup in May, and in the short-term interests of public safety it is appropriate to require protocols to be followed, such as capacity limits and spectators needing to show they have been vaccinated.

The wholesale opening of borders in the longer term should hinge on regular testing as much as vaccination. To date, the UAE has conducted more than 40 million tests on its population of approximately 10 million people.

A combination of the two strands – widespread testing and a comprehensive vaccine drive – will pay greater dividends over the coming months.

Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National