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COVID-19 won’t be last pandemic, WHO warns

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Walter Kazadi Mulombo


• Nigeria receives 4m Moderna vaccine doses from US • Experts say Delta variant may spread like chickenpox
• ‘Why vaccination not enough to stop spread of variants’ • Nigeria ready to partner EU to improve vaccine supply, says envoy

The World Health Organisation has said the COVID-19 pandemic might not be the last the world would witness, even as it called for sustained fight against the virus.

Country Representative, Dr Walter Kazadi Mulombo, disclosed this at the ninth General Meeting and Scientific Conference of the Epidemiological Society of Nigeria held in Port Harcourt.

Mulombo said the pandemic has provided Nigeria and the global community opportunity to strengthen immunisation, build capacity of health workers and strengthen disease surveillance.

He noted: “COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a great lesson on preparedness. It is not yet over. It may not likely be the last pandemic. Therefore, we must sustain the tempo.”

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Earlier, Chairman, Local Organising Committee of EPISON’s ninth AGM, Dr Omosivie Maduka, said the event was imperative to evaluate the epidemic and intelligence tools used in the control of the pandemic.

“At the end of the conference, we will issue a communiqué that will state our key observations concerning our successes and challenges with the COVID-19 response in various aspects and we will be proffering our expert opinion on what needs to be done, to be able to take us from where we are to where we need to be, which is a complete and total control of the pandemic,” he said.

Nigeria, meanwhile, received 4 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from the United States, yesterday, as the country steps up efforts to battle a third wave of infections.

The doses, which came on two planes, were received by officials from the UN children agency, UNICEF, on behalf of Nigeria at the airport in Abuja.

It was the second batch of vaccines to arrive in Africa’s most populous nation after 4 million doses were delivered in March under the COVAX scheme.

This came as the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) and the United States (US) Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that the Delta coronavirus variant appears to cause more severe illness and spreads as easily as chickenpox.

They said vaccination is not enough by itself to stop the spread of variants and recommended combination with non-pharmacological interventions such as isolation and quarantine, physical distancing, use of facemasks and hand hygiene.

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President, NMA, Prof. Innocent Ujah, told The Guardian, yesterday: “We need to be more careful because the Delta variant of is spreading so fast and can be very deadly. The government and the citizens have their parts to play. While the government provides vaccines and other materials, the people should wear their facemasks. We need to appropriately use facemasks and wash our hands. We have failed in social distancing. Vaccination alone cannot prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

He said further: “Nigerian doctors will continue to show commitment. We will continue to treat patients. The essence is to interrupt transmission chain if we are able to follow Non Pharmacological Procedures (NPP). We are very lucky that many more Nigerians are surviving the pandemic. We should not over stretch our luck. We have had several seminars to discuss what is happening and how to support government.”

A CDC internal document outlined unpublished data that showed fully vaccinated people might spread the Delta variant at the same rate as unvaccinated people.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky confirmed the authenticity of the document, which was first reported by The Washington Post.

“I think people need to understand that we’re not crying wolf here. This is serious,” she told CNN. “It’s one of the most transmissible viruses we know about. Measles, chickenpox, this — they’re all up there.”

The CDC is scheduled to publish data that will back Walensky’s controversial decision to change guidance for fully vaccinated people. She said the CDC was recommending that even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in places where transmission of the virus is sustained or high.

She said everyone in schools: students, staff and visitors should wear masks at all times. “The measures we need to get this under control are extreme,” Walensky said.

She said the data in the report did not surprise her. “It was the synthesis of the data all in one place that was sobering,” she said.

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The CDC presentation said the Delta variant is about as transmissible as chickenpox, with each infected person, on average, infecting eight or nine others. The original lineage was about as transmissible as the common cold, with each infected person passing the virus to about two other people on average. That infectivity is known as R0.

“When you think about diseases that have an R0 of eight or nine, there aren’t that many,” Walensky said. And if vaccinated people get infected anyway, they have as much virus in their bodies as unvaccinated people. That means they’re as likely to infect someone else as unvaccinated people who get infected.

“The bottom line was that, in contrast to the other variants, vaccinated people, even if they didn’t get sick, got infected and shed virus at similar levels as unvaccinated people who got infected,” Dr. Walter Orenstein, who heads the Emory Vaccine Center and who viewed the documents, told CNN.

But vaccinated people are safer, the document indicates.

“Vaccines prevent more than 90 per cent of severe disease, but may be less effective at preventing infection or transmission,” it read.

It said vaccines reduce the risk of severe disease or death 10-fold and reduce the risk of infection three-fold. The presentation also cites three reports that indicate the Delta variant, originally known as B.1.617.2, might cause more severe disease.

Also, researchers have warned that vaccination alone won’t stop the rise of new variants and in fact could push the evolution of strains that evade their protection.

They said people needed to wear masks and take other steps to prevent spread until almost everyone in a population has been vaccinated.

Their findings, published in Nature Scientific Reports, support an unpopular decision by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention to advise even fully vaccinated people to start wearing masks again in areas of sustained or high transmission.

“We found that a fast rate of vaccination decreases the probability of emergence of a resistant strain,” the team wrote.

“Counterintuitively, when a relaxation of non-pharmaceutical interventions happened at a time when most individuals of the population have already been vaccinated, the probability of emergence of a resistant strain was greatly increased,” they added.

“Our results suggest that policymakers and individuals should consider maintaining non-pharmaceutical interventions and transmission-reducing behaviours throughout the entire vaccination period.”

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“When most people are vaccinated, the vaccine-resistant strain has an advantage over the original strain,” Simon Rella of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, who worked on the study, told reporters.

“This means the vaccine resistant strain spreads through the population faster at a time when most people are vaccinated.”

But if so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions are maintained such as mask use and social distancing, the virus is less likely to spread and change. “There is a chance to remove the vaccine resistant mutations from the population,” Rella said.

Also, Obinna Onowu, Nigeria’s Ambassador to the European Union (EU) has pledged the country’s readiness to work closely with the union to improve supply of coronavirus vaccines to the country.

Onowu, who made the pledge when he presented his letter of credence to Ms Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission in Brussels, also spoke of Nigeria’s readiness to collaborate with the EU to strengthen the health system in the country.

This was contained in a statement, yesterday, by the Nigerian mission in Brussels. The statement further disclosed that the Nigerian envoy pledged to strengthen the country’s bilateral and trade relations with the EU.

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