COVID-19 vaccines: What PAHO experts want you to know
Written by Maria Cohut, Ph.D. on November 9, 2020 — Fact checked by Alexandra Sanfins, Ph.D.
With 47 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in testing, it is no wonder that there are myths and misconceptions about when a vaccine will actually be available to the public, and how safe it will be. Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) experts have recently addressed the media to clarify some of these issues.
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The latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that, as of November 3, 2020, there are 47 COVID-19 vaccine candidates in clinical trial phases around the world. There are also as many as 155 in preclinical testing.
Given the sheer number of vaccine candidates that researchers have developed within months of the start of the pandemic, it is only natural that questions and doubts have arisen about this process.
Traditionally, it can take years for a vaccine candidate to undergo testing for safety and efficacy and to gain official approval for distribution to the public.
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However, scientists have been ramping up their efforts with the aim of bringing a COVID-19 vaccine to the public in record time.
At this year’s WIRED Health:Tech conference, Prof. Uğur Şahin, the co-developer of one of the most promising vaccine candidates so far — the “Pfizer vaccine” — explained that speeding up does not mean that scientists are rushing the process.
Rather, researchers have been optimizing the vaccine development process by sharing more data across research teams and conducting some of the tests in parallel, rather than consecutively, Prof. Şahin explained.
Still, many people continue to have questions and doubts regarding the safety and efficacy of future COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the development process for vaccine candidates.
To address some of these questions, specialists affiliated with or collaborating with the PAHO held a dedicated webinar on October 23, 2020.
The speakers included:
- Dr. Cuahtémoc Ruiz-Matuz, chief of the Comprehensive Family Immunization unit at the PAHO
- Dr. Jarbas Barbosa, PAHO assistant director
- Dr. Alba María Ropero Álvarez, PAHO regional advisor on immunization
- Dr. Lucia Helena de Oliveira, PAHO regional advisor on new vaccines
The context of immunization
During the webinar, Dr. Ruiz-Matuz suggested that the issues regarding an upcoming COVID-19 vaccine did not emerge in a vacuum.
For decades, healthcare policymakers have striven to make immunization against common pathogens available worldwide, particularly to prevent potentially dangerous childhood diseases.
Dr. Ruiz-Matuz spoke of the recent situation of worldwide immunization programs, noting that global coverage of vaccines for 1-year-olds is increasing, leading to a lower number of deaths due to preventable illness in infancy.
In the Americas, he said, cases of childhood diseases that countries have been vaccinating against over the past few decades have lowered drastically. This is the case with rubella, diphtheria, pertussis, neonatal tetanus, and measles.
Some diseases, he added, have disappeared altogether — as is the case with polio and congenital rubella syndrome.
However, data from last year indicate that childhood immunization programs may be losing ground. “Of 25 children, three are completely left behind, while one starts the three-dose scheme and does not finish it,” Dr. Ruiz-Matuz pointed out.
Measles, mumps, and rubella vaccinations, in particular, have been on the decline in the past year. According to the PAHO specialist, “This is obviously the impact of the pandemic.”
Dr. Ruiz-Matuz also argued that, sometimes, the challenges that experts face at a local and global level when it comes to immunization are not intrinsic to health services.
Urbanization trends, natural disasters, local political contexts, the lack of social equity, the movement of populations between regions and countries, and country-wide financial crises are all added obstacles standing in the way of adequate vaccination.