Thu | Feb 25, 2021

Editorial | Need better particulars on new vaccine plan

Published:Monday | February 22, 2021 | 10:41 AM

The Government’s decision to aggressively scale up the inoculation of Jamaicans against COVID-19 this year is welcome news all round. However, it requires additional, and more specific information for a serious analysis of the credibility of the target.

Why the idea – if it can be realised – makes sense is obvious. After almost a year – but a few clearly explainable spikes – of keeping a reasonably good lid on the transmission of the disease, Jamaica is experiencing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases.

Up to the end of 2020, the island recorded 12,915 cases of COVID-19, with 303 deaths from the infection. On the last day of the year, there were also 1,923 active cases of the disease.

In January, the number of confirmed cases increased by over 22 per cent, or 2,863, to reach 15,778. During the month another 49 people died, increasing the death toll to 352 – a 16 per cent spike. Active cases increased by nearly two-thirds (65.2 per cent), reaching 3,177 on January 31.

The heavy rev of January turned to a virtual explosion in February. For the first 19 days of the month, there were 5,146 additional cases, or nearly 33 per cent more recorded cases than there were at the end of January. Critically, the active cases more than doubled (134.2 per cent) to 7,442. Indeed, between the end of 2020 and February 19, COVID-19 infections confirmed by Jamaica jumped 62 per cent, while the active cases spiralled upwards to 287 per cent.

GLOBAL ECONOMIC CRISIS

COVID-19, however, is not only a public health problem. It is a global economic crisis. Countries shut down to slow the spread of the virus. World output declined by over five per cent in 2020. The slump in Jamaica is expected to double that. At the height of the outbreak, the economy shed 130,000 jobs, many of these in tourism, the big foreign exchange earner, whose inflows collapsed by nearly 80 per cent. The industry grossed around US$3.6 billion in 2019.

While growth of four per cent projected for 2021 will be measured against 2020’s collapsed base, achieving that expansion will depend, in good measure, on how effectively Jamaica contains the coronavirus. Tourism’s revival, especially, depends on it. Tourists, even those from countries where people are being vaccinated, will be less likely to travel to countries that are far behind in inoculations. The vaccine is critical, too, if there is to be far more robust activity in other sectors, as well as bringing normality back to social life.

Therefore, last week’s announcement by the health minister, Christopher Tufton, of the Government’s intention to acquire 3.5 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine this year, and inoculate two million Jamaicans, is significant. That would mean that around three-quarters of the population would be vaccinated in 2021, a far cry from the 17 per cent that the Government was projecting only a few weeks ago. The newly projected level of vaccination would be sufficient to give Jamaica herd immunity, thus halting the spread of the virus.

This newspaper welcomes this far more aggressive posture, which nonetheless poses questions that need clarification. The declaration suggests certainty on Jamaica’s part that it will, through its various initiatives, acquire the requisite amount of vaccines, despite Minister Tufton’s acknowledgement that “wealthier countries have been buying up blocks of vaccines, (while) poorer countries (are) not having access”.

It would be counterproductive to the national psyche, and a significant downside to the economy, if an aspirational target were seemingly set in stone – a little like the ‘five-in-four’ (five per cent annual expansion in GDP in four years) declaration that the Government made its mantra in 2016.

PROVIDE FULLER EXPLANATION

It would be useful, in the circumstances, if Minister Tufton and his technocrats provided a fuller explanation of the assumptions, including the mix of jabs that will be in play, behind the two million inoculations from 3.5 million doses of vaccine.

Up to now, the science, and associated literature, indicate that most vaccines are predicated on two doses administered at a specific period apart. That would mean that 3.5 million doses would be sufficient for the most efficacious vaccination of 1.75 million Jamaicans, or 250,000 fewer than Dr Tufton says. Of course, one and three-quarter million people would be in the ballpark of the minimum 60 per cent immunisation that some experts say could bring herd immunity.

So far, Jamaica seems to have locked in doses of the AstraZeneca product under the COVAX initiative, and possibly via direct purchases from India, where the Serum Institute of India is also producing the product. Whether these are sufficient to meet the more aggressive timetable is questionable. And while studies suggest that a single dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine has substantial efficacy, the second dose remains highly recommended.

Given the cryogenic storage requirement for the Pfizer vaccine probably making its immediate use in Jamaica impractical, Dr Tufton may have his eye on a substantial delivery of the just-approved vaccine by the American pharmaceutical firm Johnson and Johnson, which is a single-dose drug. But whether Jamaica is at the head of the queue for supplies from Johnson and Johnson is not clear.

Dr Tufton and his team should provide further and better particulars.