When will a COVID-19 vaccine be ready? It’s a question that has been repeatedly asked since the beginning of the pandemic. Not surprising given recorded COVID-19 deaths will soon exceed one million and a substantial number have not even been reported. Everyone’s life has been upended. The global economy is in a tailspin. There is little disagreement that vaccines are the only solution to end the pandemic. But while scientific and vaccine manufacturing community make huge strides in the race towards that goal, it is important to remember that vaccines are only one of three Vs needed to beat this coronavirus. Besides vaccines, we need vaccinators and vaccinees; people to administer them and people willing to receive them. And that will be far from straightforward.
Besides vaccines, we need vaccinators and vaccinees; people to administer them and people willing to receive them.
The current crisis presents new challenges. Healthcare workers and volunteer vaccinators may not be available due to lack of incentives and support. They may be infected with COVID-19 themselves or unable to work because they lack the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to stay safe. Those that are available are working under enormous pressure and at great risk to themselves to try to keep health services like childhood immunisation running. Greater empathy towards health workforce coupled with recognition and rewards for their heroic efforts would boost their morale and equip them to take COVID-19 vaccines to people.
Even under normal circumstances, mass vaccination campaigns are successful only if people trust the government as fair, caring and acting in the best interest of the masses. Failure to provide even the most basic services such as water, sanitation, fuel, schools, primary health care, roads and electricity, and policies to support people’s livelihoods, can severely undermine public trust. It can also provide a fertile ground for the spread of misinformation and false rumours about vaccine safety, making the task of delivering COVID-19 vaccines even more difficult - something that we are already seeing. Intentional investments in enhancing public confidence in the thoroughness, effectiveness and safety of vaccines are urgently needed.
Another challenge is that in most developing countries, immunisation services are set up to deliver vaccinations to children under two years of age. COVID-19 vaccines would have a different target group – initially, health workers who are at the highest risk of exposure to the disease, as well those older populations who are at high risk because of underlying health conditions. This would mean identifying, cataloguing and reaching new target groups. Considering the ongoing challenges most lower-income countries face in even tracking child births and therefore the target population for childhood immunisation, identifying the vaccinees for COVID-19 would be no mean task. This requires immediate funding and technical support from the global community and an encouragement of nationally designed and innovative strategies.
With COVID-19 halting the pandemic is ultimately about saving the lives and livelihoods of people. And you simply can’t have the single biggest and most rapid global deployment of vaccines without people.