ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka must not be in a hurry to decide on a COVID-19 vaccine and ought to, for the time being, focus its efforts on containing the spread of the virus until a suitable vaccine strategy is worked out, former Epidemiology Unit Director Dr Nihal Abeysinghe said.
Speaking to EconomyNext on Wednesday (6), Abeysinghe said that many countries that have already opted for a vaccine have done so to curb an uncontrollable fatality rate within their borders.
“Countries that are producing vaccines and have already started using them have a high rate of spreading and a high death rate; so they have to do something about that,” he said, adding that these countries have no choice but to go for a vaccine.
The expert cautioned against prematurely deciding on which vaccine to get without conducting adequate research.
“India ordered a vaccine that was still being tested even before the COVAX programme. Because the number of fatalities are going up, some countries are very keen to use this vaccine. That doesn’t mean that all the countries should do that,” he said.
COVAX, a global initiative spearheaded by Gavi, an international vaccine alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), aims to equitably cover 20 percent of a signatory nation’s vaccine needs, irrespective of income level. Some 190 countries have signed up for the programme, including wealthy nations such as the UK and Canada.
Abeysinghe said that all the various vaccines that are being produced and rolled out around the globe are still in their early stages.
“There are many things to consider, and many things to test,” he said.
This was a sentiment echoed by State Minister Dr Sudarshini Fernandopulle who told EconomyNext on December 18 that it was still too early to decide one way or another. “It is too soon to tell which vaccines would be the best for our country and would be compatible with our citizens,” she said.
However, earlier this week, the cabinet of ministers greenlit a proposal by Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi to enter into an agreement with the manufacturer when acquiring a vaccine through the COVAX facility. Lalith Weeratunga, chief advisor to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, leads a committee appointed to oversee the process of selecting a vaccine that is best suited to the country and to determine the quantity of doses needed. Weeratunga told a private TV station this week that the first batch of the vaccine should arrive in Sri Lanka before the national New Year in April 2021.
Meanwhile, visiting Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar had assured President Rajapaksa that Sri Lanka will be prioritised when an Indian-manufactured vaccine is ready for export, according to a statement issued by the president’s office.
However, Abeysinghe is of the view that there is still not sufficient information about the options available.
“Even with the Pfizer-BionTech vaccine, we do not have all the details needed to arrive at a final decision,” Abeysinghe said.
The former epidemiology chief also warned that the Government of Sri Lanka would have to bear the responsibility for any consequences including possible side effects from the vaccine that it eventually decides to import.
“Many do not understand the real situation here. When the Pfizer vaccine was introduced to the world, some media and even members of parliament were very interested. There are many things to consider here. Though there have been numerous discussions regarding this, they have been very incomplete. This is the biggest issue,” he said.
Abeysinghe said that there are three ways to acquire a vaccine: through a government-to-government agreement, through COVAX, and directly from the manufacturer. To get it through the COVAX facility, he said, both the manufacturer and buyer should register with COVAX.
“So far only the Pfizer vaccine is registered. If we are not ready to get that one then we should wait till other vaccines register with the facility. Either way there is a process that we have to go through to get this vaccine. It has to get the approval of the World Health Organisation (WHO). It should then get the approval of the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NRMA) in Sri Lanka. The final decision is given by the advisory committee on Communicable Disease whose approval is needed to bring the vaccine into the country,” he said.
However, Abeysinghe noted that the government has the power to deviate from the decision of the committee.
“It is a huge responsibility. Whatever happens the government must take responsibility for any eventuality that arises after acquiring the vaccine. It is not easy as everyone says it is,” he said.
Reported by Chanka Jayasinghe and Himal Kotelawala (Colombo/Jan08/2021)