The first people are already being vaccinated against the coronavirus. In the UK, a 91-year-old woman was the first person to receive the Pfizer Covid-19 jab, and other vaccines are steadily being rolled out as testing and approval processes are completed. Health experts warn, however, that it will take time to produce, distribute, and vaccinate enough people to significantly slow the spread of the virus. In the meantime, we should continue to follow official advice about social distancing and mask wearing.
What do our readers think? Miguel points out that tens of thousands of healthcare workers have been infected during the COVID-19 pandemic in his country (Spain). So, now that effective vaccines has been discovered, should healthcare workers receive it first? If not, who should get the COVID-19 vaccine first?
We put Miguel’s comment to Christiane Woopen, Professor of Ethics and Theory of Medicine at the University of Cologne. How would she respond?
For another perspective, we also spoke to Sara Cerdas, a Portuguese medical doctor and politician who serves as a Member of the European Parliament with the Socialists & Democrats group. What would she say?
Great question, Miguel. This is actually quite important to understand what will be the strategy to vaccinate against the COVID-19 disease and, in other words, to be immune to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
So, first and foremost we need to assure protection, and this vaccine will confer group immunity. For this to happen, we must allow for some people who cannot receive the vaccine for health reasons, so the whole world’s population must protect them. This varies from disease to disease; for instance, for measles, you need a coverage of 95 to 98 percent of the population in order to reach this group immunity.
Those that cannot have the disease are those who are immuno-suppresed, for instance those who have undergone a transplant or are undergoing oncology treatments, among many, many others – so these are your average colleague or friend.
Healthcare workers are in the frontline of the battle against this virus. They should be the ones – healthcare and social services workers – having access to this kind of protection first. Why? Because they are the ones most exposed to the virus so they have a high chance of being infected, so we need to decrease this risk.
I would also like to call attention to the strategy which the European Commission launched in this regard. So, we need to protect our most vulnerable – it’s not only those that are hit hardest with the disease, it’s also those that are at higher risk of being infected. In this respect, healthcare workers should be one of the first groups to be vaccinated and immunised against this virus…
It’s incredibly rare for a vaccine to be developed in less than five years. Julia argues that many people have genuine and valid concerns about rushed pandemic vaccines that might not have not been safely tested. Are the new vaccines safe?
Here’s what Sara Cerdas had to say to Julia:
Julia, that’s a quite important question, because how did we manage to pull this off? And that’s the million dollar question, so to say. There are two premises for any medicine to be developed – you need funding, because everything needs funding for research to be developed; research is your way of finding something new, so it’s through a trial-and-error process, and for this to happen you need funding. And the other part is that you need to test the medicine, first in a laboratory and then on healthy humans and humans with the same pathology in double-blind studies.
What is important here is that we managed to speed up the process. It usually takes around 15 years to develop this sort of medicine, and we sped up the process in terms of financing and also in terms of the availability of the virus during the pandemic. So, these two premises meant that many companies managed to accelerate the process because they had the tools and resources to do it.
What are we guaranteeing at the European Union level? The European Medicines Agency is the one that is going to say: “This vaccine is safe to go to market”. Of course, in medicine, and I’m a medical doctor myself and my professors have told me: in medicine you cannot say “never” or “always”. These absolute measures do not exist. So, anything that we do comes with its risks. There are some risks in taking vaccines, for example an allergic reaction to any component of the vaccine that binds to the active substance. But there are higher odds of you being hit by lightning than the odds of having an allergic reaction to a vaccine.
Everything we do comes with a risk, and the risk here is very low. Most vaccines are very, very safe and a lot of myths related to vaccines have been debunked over the years. There was one study that said vaccines are bad, but for that one study there were a ton of other studies saying that study was not correct, and the author of that study even got expelled from the scientific community because it was discovered they were working for industry. It hindered health information and helped vaccine hesitancy.
The important thing is that there are a lot of steps and processes a medicine must follow to guarantee safety and efficacy. They are not being skipped, and we are following all of them. Even though there is a lot of pressure for the EMA to say these vaccines are safe and ready for market, they are working through all the steps and not skipping anything.
Next up, Paul (Παυλος) asks whether individuals should have the right to put everyone’s health at risk by refusing vaccination. For example, should those who have been vaccinated be allowed to leave lockdown earlier than those who refuse it?
How would Christiane Woopen reply?
Finally, Basti is worried about the “fight” between countries over who gets the vaccine first. Is it selfish, for example, if the EU buys COVID vaccines before other, less wealthy countries can?
What would Christiane Woopen say?
Who should get the COVID-19 vaccine first? Should quarantine end earlier for people who get vaccinated? Is the EU selfishly buying vaccines before other countries can? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts!