Moina Spooner, editor at The Conversation Africa, asked pathology expert Dr. Ahmed Kalebi, to unpack what this means for global efforts to contain the pandemic.
What are the risks if not everyone is vaccinated against Covid-19?
In countries where a significant part of the population is not vaccinated, there is a high risk of the continued spread of Covid-19 in the community for an extended period of time.
The longer the community continues to spread, the more likely it is that the virus will mutate. This means that the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 may mutate into more aggressive variants.
The mutant variants from the unvaccinated population can infect even those in the vaccinated population.
Vaccines may not work against mutated variants because the virus’ genetic code changes.
A vaccine is designed to produce an immune response using antibodies designed to recognize the protein structure of the virus that has been altered. Think of it like an enemy changing their military uniform and becoming less noticeable to the opposing army.
You can also evade the immunity brought about by previous infections for similar reasons – immunity was designed around the structure of this original virus.
The altered virus would not be easily recognized by antibodies from the previous infection. Therefore, the mutant strains could infect those already vaccinated and cause re-infection.
This means that everyone would still be vulnerable. Even those who live in areas where the population has already been vaccinated would not be fully protected against the virus if the virus had mutated elsewhere.
Due to the networking of countries and regions around the world, no single population lives in complete isolation. No particular population is safe unless all populations are safe.
This coronavirus is light transferable from person to person through the air. Any new and potentially more deadly mutated variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus could be more contagious and easily spread around the world. Similar to the original virus.
The whole world will only be safe if it is ensured that all populations are adequately vaccinated. It is unlikely that existing preventive measures will be able to contain the pandemic completely or that it will burn out anytime soon.
This happens when infections slow down because a significant portion of the population has developed “herd immunity”, either from previous infection or vaccination, or when the movement of people who started the epidemic is completely stopped.
The virus cannot then be transmitted quickly – from one person or part of the population to another – similar to the way a bush or forest fire burns out when most of the plants are already charred or when there is no more wind to propel the fire and can thus do not spread any further.
How can governments mitigate these risks?
It is not realistic for countries that have vaccinated their people to close their borders against countries that have not vaccinated.
If vaccinated countries did not completely seal their borders from the rest of the world, there would always be some interaction between their citizens and citizens from unvaccinated countries.
To protect themselves from the virus, governments need to get vaccines in place quickly. Vaccines offer the most effective and controllable preventive measures against viral infections. Especially one that, like SARS-CoV-2, is highly transmittable.
There are also no real possibility of antiviral treatment or cure, as there are currently no antiviral drugs in the pipeline that have shown evidence of effectiveness against Covid-19.
As different countries wait to gain access to vaccines and to vaccinate their populations, the other public health measures will be taken these are It is also known that the spread of Covid-19 is being slowed down or reduced.
This will limit the spread of the virus within and between communities and decrease the rate of reproduction and mutations. It will also minimize hospital stays and deaths from Covid-19.
These measures include the use of face masks, hand washing, and social distancing.
If there are signs of an impending spike in infection rates, authorities must act quickly to take “breaker” action to forestall the spike. This includes geographic lockdowns and mass quarantines.
Monitoring the rate of infection and the extent to which the virus has spread through laboratory tests to detect the virus – and genomic testing for mutations – is key to informing authorities and guiding what steps to take.
Testing capacity needs to be expanded, including tests to detect the virus – such as PCR and antigen tests – and serological (antibody) tests that look for people who have previously had the infection and have developed some immunity.
This data can be used to perform serosurveillance mapping – testing for antibodies – and monitoring. Serosurveillance can also guide the prioritization of vaccine distribution.
This shows the importance of using science in fighting the pandemic. Governments also need to work together – as a global community – to make it work for all.
What approach should governments take in containing the pandemic?
Governments must work together to rapidly increase the production and worldwide supply of the vaccine. It is critical that as many people as possible have access to the vaccine as quickly as possible. This requires Abolition of “vaccine nationalism” and hoarding.
Funding and support for existing vaccines must also be increased Production facilities and new sites for vaccine production need to be established, including in disadvantaged and underdeveloped countries. This would be done through technology transfer with parts of intellectual property and technical capacity for the vaccines that have already been shown to be effective.
The solution lies in a concerted global approach to keep the world safe. No one will be completely safe from a pandemic unless the whole world is collectively safe.