COVID-19 is far from over. Worldwide we have surpassed 100 million cases, and tragically, more than 2 million people have lost their lives to the disease. These are not just numbers, but people. Each person has a name and a story. Each number is someone’s mother, father, child, brother, sister or grandparent.
So far, many Pacific countries and areas (PICs) have avoided large-scale community transmission of COVID. Pacific leaders and communities are to be commended for this: there is no doubt that many lives have been saved as a result of their leadership and decisive action. But as long as the virus is circulating anywhere in the world, no country is safe. PICs are no exception.
The good news is that, one year into the pandemic, we have learnt a lot. We know what works to slow or stop the spread of the virus. Wearing masks, frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and targeted social measures – such as stay at home orders in response to clusters and outbreaks – stop transmission of the virus, and save lives. But we also know that the success of PICs in containing COVID-19 has come at a cost. Closing borders has significant economic and social impacts; asking people to stay home and physically distance during outbreaks does too. And unfortunately, there will be no quick path out of this pandemic.
Yet as we move into our second year of living in a world with COVID-19, additional tools for fighting the virus bring hope. We are now all very optimistic about the development of new, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. Though vaccines alone won’t end the pandemic, used in combination with the other measures we know work, they offer much potential.
It is important to understand what we currently know about the science of the new vaccines. The evidence we currently have about the existing COVID-19 vaccines shows that they are effective at preventing disease, but we still don’t know if they prevent people from becoming infected with the virus. This means that being vaccinated may not stop people from passing the virus onto others. It is also the case that while these new vaccines are very promising, no vaccine is 100% effective.
In PICs with outbreaks, maintaining physical distance, hand hygiene, staying home when sick, avoiding crowed spaces – all the behaviours we have been promoting for the last year – therefore need to be maintained. In those that are COVID-19 contained, as long as repatriation flights continue, and goods arrive by sea/air, there is always a risk that cases of COVID-19 will be introduced or re-introduced into the community. We must be prepared for this scenario, and ready to apply the measures we see working elsewhere.
We know many people are asking when vaccines will be available in PICs. There is not a straightforward answer to this question. We anticipate that in 2021, demand will vastly exceed supply. While this is the case, we must prioritise those most exposed to infection, and most vulnerable to getting very sick from it –to save lives and prevent health systems from being overwhelmed. The goal of COVAX (the COVID vaccine facility) is to provide enough vaccine doses to cover priority groups, such as frontline health care (and other) workers, older people and people with pre-existing illnesses which put them at higher risk of getting sick from COVID-19 – by the end of this year. In most countries and areas, vaccinations will not be available to the wider population until some time after that.
Governments across the Pacific, WHO, and other partners are all working very hard to try to secure vaccines for the Pacific as soon as possible. We had originally anticipated that COVAX would provide an initial allocation of doses to participating countries to vaccinate these highest priority groups (approximately 3% of the population globally) in the second half of 2021. As a result of the committed efforts of governments and partners, the date for these initial deliveries may now be sooner, though challenges with vaccine production and delivery – for example, with manufacturing – make the precise timing of each of these phases of the vaccine rollout uncertain.
But this doesn’t mean we should just sit and wait. PICs now need to focus on preparing, so they are ready when the first vaccines do arrive. This includes starting pre-registration for priority groups, such as healthcare workers, other ‘frontline’ workers, the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions. It means making sure the systems are in place and working, for delivering vaccines and monitoring their safety and effectiveness. This requires investments to strengthen health systems which will bring benefits beyond COVID-19.
And even as the number of people vaccinated increases, we must not let down our guard. Together, we must continue with our collective efforts to fight COVID-19 and protect our families, friends, and communities. Because COVID-19 is spread from human to human, the sense of community responsibility can be an asset and strength in the Pacific.
I know that everyone, everywhere is tired of the pandemic. But no country is safe until every country is safe. Until the vast majority of every country’s population has been vaccinated with safe and effective vaccines, we must use or be ready to use the measures we know are effective at slowing or stopping the spread of COVID-19.
I encourage people across the Pacific, to continue listening to their local health authorities, and thinking about how the actions we take as individuals determine our collective health. In COVID-contained PICs, I encourage people to discuss what they can do as individuals, as households, as communities; to be ready for the possible introduction or re-introduction of COVID-19. Communities, especially in the Pacific, have the power to influence what happens next.
There is still a lot of work to be done, and WHO will continue working closely with every Pacific Island country and area in the fight against COVID-19. We are all in this together.
By Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific