When countries are scrambling in scaling up vaccination, effectiveness of jabs against new variants has appeared as a fresh concern
It was thought that finding a vaccine would solve the crisis induced by Covid-19 to a large extent. True that scientists have found quite a few vaccines at a neck break speed, but taming the virus seems to be getting more complicated than was thought – with countries reporting low effectiveness of the Chinese vaccine and emergence of a new variant, at least one of which from South Africa thought to be deadlier.
Moderna's announcement yesterday that its vaccine is effective against the new variants had little effect to smother the concern as other major producers are yet to come up with similar affirmation with Pfizer "hopeful" that its vaccine would work against the variants as well.
News reports from Europe to Latin America, from Turkey to some Asian countries indicate that the vaccination is facing roadblocks when it comes to scaling up production and distribution that includes deciding which populations should get it first and at what cost.
Emergence of new variants of Covid-19 in the UK and South Africa and the burning question over the effectiveness of the vaccines already developed against these variants seem to have put the brakes on the skyrocketing hopes to tame the pandemic fast like the pace of developing the jabs.
Take some news reports one by one for a reality check of the vaccination – the only way the coronavirus pandemic will be brought under control.
The effectiveness of the Chinese vaccine, Sinovac, against Covid-19 cases has been questioned mainly because of inconsistent data and spotty disclosures.
Bad news came for Sinovac from Brazil, Turkey and some Asian countries.
This vaccine has been found to be 50.4% effective in Brazilian clinical trials, according to the results released by researchers on 13 January, meaning the vaccine is significantly less effective than what previous data suggested.
Its efficacy is barely over the 50% mark needed for regulatory approval.
But in the first week of January Brazilian researchers who were conducting the trials announced that the vaccine had 78% efficacy.
Noteworthy thing is that the Sinovac trials have produced different results across different countries.
In December, Turkish researchers in their interim trials said the Sinovac jab was 91.25% effective. Almost the same time Indonesia, which rolled out its mass vaccination programme on 14 January, said it was 65.3% effective.
The few announcements that have trickled out suggest that China's vaccines, while considered effective, cannot stop the virus as well as those developed by Pfizer and Moderna, the American drugmakers, says a New York Times report.
The development prompted officials in Malaysia and Singapore, both of which ordered for doses of Sinovac, to reassure their citizens that they would approve a vaccine only if it had been proven safe and effective.
"Right now, I would not take any Chinese vaccine, because there's insufficient data," said Bilahari Kausikan, an influential former official at Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He added that he would consider it only with "a proper report".
The Philippines government has faced criticism by lawmakers for signing a deal to buy Sinovac.
Considered as a game changer in the developing world for a low price-point and easy storage, the Oxford vaccine's effectiveness for people over 65 has become a debatable issue.
German dailies Handelsblatt and Bild said the vaccine had an efficacy of 8% or less than 10%, respectively, in people over 65.
German officials were concerned the vaccine may not receive approval from the European Union's European Medicines Agency for use in those over 65, Bild reported in its online edition.
Although pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has denied media reports, the debate is not baseless.
The Oxford vaccine's main trial in the UK started testing on adults not older than 55, because it initially focused on healthcare personnel and frontline workers in active duty.
Elderly trial participants were recruited later so that infections, which are needed to arrive at reliable efficacy data, were also coming in later.
In a paper published in the medical journal The Lancet on 8 December, researchers at Oxford University said efficacy data based on infections in the elderly were still limited.
"Efficacy data in these cohorts are currently limited by the small number of [infection] cases, but additional data will be available in future analyses," they said in the paper.
Delay in delivery of vaccine jabs is holding back scaling up the vaccination.
Officials in Brazil and Turkey, the New York Times reports, have complained that Chinese companies have been slow to ship the doses and ingredients.
At least 24 countries, most of them low and middle income, signed deals with the Chinese vaccine companies because they offered access when richer nations had claimed most of the doses made by Pfizer and Moderna.
"But the delays in getting the Chinese vaccines and the fact that the vaccines are less effective mean that those countries may take longer to vanquish the virus," says the NYT report.
News coming from Europe is also not shining.
The European Union's vaccine procurement strategy is under scrutiny after member states struggled to roll out rapid vaccinations in the first weeks of the year, falling behind the UK and the US in the early race to inoculate citizens against Covid-19, reports the Financial Times (FT).
According to FT data, while the UK has administered more than 10 doses per 100 residents and the US has administered just over six per 100, the EU is languishing at under two doses per 100 residents.
"The widening gap has sparked growing anxiety in European capitals, especially as already strained supplies of vaccine have suffered further setbacks,"
In the latest blow to vaccination plans, European officials on Friday said first-quarter deliveries of the Oxford shot were likely to be cut by more than half because of what the company had warned was reduced capacity in its EU supply chain.
When countries are scrambling in scaling up vaccination, effectiveness of jabs against new variants has appeared as a fresh concern.
Vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech effectively protect recipients.
But in a worrying sign, they are slightly less effective against a variant found in South Africa, which is more deadly than the one found in the UK.
The roadblocks have already put the brakes on the global economic recovery on vaccine hopes as a Bloomberg report on 24 January says, "The world economy is facing a tougher start to 2021 than expected as coronavirus infections surge and it takes time to roll out vaccinations."
The Economist's latest article is a reminder of the historical records of vaccination as it says "in theory, the high efficacy shown in clinical trials should be sufficient to stop the virus cold. Yet only a few vaccines have ever brought epidemics to an abrupt halt."