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COVID vaccine caution

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Yesterday’s announcement by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer that a coronavirus vaccine it had developed had shown 90 per cent effectiveness was greeted with cautious optimism by Jamaica’s Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton.

Pfizer said tests involving more than 40,000 people had provided results that were a “critical milestone” in the search for a vaccine, as global infections soared past 50 million — including an alarming 10 million now in the United States alone.

The announcement sent stock markets soaring and raised hopes of an end to the worst pandemic in a century.

Asked for a reaction to the announcement, Tufton said the Government and local health authorities are encouraged when they hear of modern science catching up with the risk and impact of the coronavirus.

“It’s important also that clinical trials are complete so we have the confidence that any new discovery is safe while providing the protection we want to achieve,” Tufton told the Jamaica Observer.

“I truly hope that this announcement and others are proven right with an early breakthrough. In the meantime, I want to encourage all Jamaicans to continue to observe the protocols and continue to wear masks, maintain physical distance, and sanitise,” he said.

Stock markets had already jumped after Democrat Joe Biden was called as the winner of the US presidential election on the weekend. They accelerated rapidly on the vaccine news, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up three per cent at yesterday’s close of trade.

An effective vaccine is seen as the best hope to break the cycle of surges in cases followed by severe restrictions across much of the world since COVID-19 first emerged in China late last year.

Tens of millions of people in Europe are living under lockdowns preventing them from leaving their homes, and millions of business owners are enduring forced closures.

Curbs on daily life have shredded the global economy, but politicians have had few other tools to protect vulnerable populations.

“We are a significant step closer to providing people around the world with a much-needed breakthrough to help bring an end to this global health crisis,” Pfizer Chairman Albert Bourla said in a statement.

The drug, being developed jointly with German firm BioNTech, is one of more than 40 candidate vaccines, but no other has yet made similar claims about its effectiveness.

The companies said they could pass the final hurdles for a US roll-out later this month, and could supply up to 50 million doses globally this year and up to 1.3 billion next year.

The scientific community reacted positively, with top US expert Anthony Fauci describing the results as “extraordinary”.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the news as “encouraging” shortly after warning that the world “might be tired of COVID-19. But it is not tired of us”.

But others pointed out that no information had yet been disclosed about the ages of the participants in the trial.

“If a vaccine is to reduce severe disease and death, and thus enable the population at large to return to their normal day-to-day lives, it will need to be effective in older and elderly members of our society,” said Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Outgoing US President Donald Trump was among the first to react, writing on Twitter: “STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!”

Political analysts say American voters handed victory to Biden in part because Trump failed to rein in the epidemic — often refusing to back restrictive measures or even wear a mask in public and repeatedly undermining his own experts.

Biden, who will not take office until January, has already announced a task force to tackle COVID-19, as confirmed infections soared past 10 million and American deaths neared 238,000.

“We’re still facing a very dark winter,” he said. “The bottom line: I will spare no effort to turn this pandemic around once we’re sworn in.”

The vaccine news will be of particular relief to people in Europe — the current focal point of the pandemic and the region subject to the most widespread restrictions.

The European Union said yesterday it could soon sign a contract with Pfizer and BioNTech for 300 million doses of the new coronavirus vaccine.

“European science works!” declared Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, congratulating the companies after they claimed a breakthrough.

Yesterday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky became the latest leader to test positive for the virus, with his office saying he felt well and would self-isolate and continue to work.

Italy was edging closer to a full lockdown, with experts warning of pressure on hospitals.

“There is no doubt that the situation is largely out of control,” said Massimo Galli, head of the infectious diseases department at Milan’s Sacco hospital.

Grim news kept coming elsewhere, with Russia surpassing its record for daily infections again yesterday.

Hungary is now one of the hardest-hit countries in terms of deaths proportionate to its population, and the Government announced new national restrictions to come into force tomorrow.

Portugal, meanwhile, entered a state of emergency that will see curfews imposed on most of the population.

In France, which has imposed nationwide stay-at-home orders and is clocking more than 40,000 cases a day, the central bank revised its expectations of the damage wrought by the curbs.

“Before the second wave, we thought the recession would be a little less than nine per cent, we think today that for 2020 as a whole it will be between nine and 10 per cent,” Banque de France chief Francois Villeroy de Galhau said.

— AFP & Jamaica Observer

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