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Dr. Joel Teelucksingh when he received his COVID-19 vaccine at the San Fernando Teaching Hospital.

Trinidad and Tobago’s reach for herd immunity, in the fight against COVID-19, might not be achieved, if vaccination is not made a priority, local medical experts say.

In his response to a New York Times report on Monday in which it highlighted experts’ concerns about the coronavirus becoming endemic as a result of the slow movement of vaccinations, coupled with its rapid mutations which were creating more contagious variants – Internal Medicine Specialist Dr Joel Teelucksingh said the focus must be placed on minimisation as elimination would be unlikely in many countries.

In an email interview, Teelucksingh told Guardian Media, vaccine inequity, variants, and hesitancy in large swathes of an unprotected population could exacerbate the situation.

Speaking on Israel’s accomplishment in achieving herd immunity, with an infection rate now at fewer than one in 100,000, Teelucksigh said for Trinidad and Tobago to mirror this success, it would take a plan of action inclusive of several strategies working synergistically.

“High-filtration N95 masks must be readily available for frontline workers, more rapid tests and better border control are immediate strategies in a developing country’s faltering vaccination campaign,” he advised.

At Monday’s Ministry of Health COVID-19 response press briefing, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Roshan Parasram stated for this country to achieve herd immunity, 1,000,000 of the country’s population would have to be vaccinated. T&T has a population of 1.4 million and so far, just over 60,000 have been inoculated with one dose, while just over 1,000 have received two jabs.

Teelucksingh said while the relentless upward trajectory in local cases and deaths had certainly increased fear and reduced some vaccine hesitancy among the population, the shots, however, were not readily available or accessible.

Meanwhile, Dr Christopher Oura, Professor of Virology at the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus, endorsed Teelucksingh’s sentiments, that T&T like many other countries may have difficulty attaining herd immunity. He said the chance of the virus disappearing from circulation in the world in the foreseeable future was extremely unlikely.

“We are going to have to learn to live with this virus going forward, as it is likely to become endemic and probably seasonal, a little bit like the flu virus,“ Oura warned.

Speaking to Guardian Media, via email, Oura also alluded to the issues of vaccine availability and hesitancy playing major roles in the inefficiencies of gaining herd immunity.

“The problem is that we would need to get around 70-80 per cent of the world population protected, either through vaccination or previous infection, in order to achieve herd immunity. I’m afraid there are many reasons why this will not happen, including vaccine availability and vaccine hesitancy.”

He said because of the action taken by countries like Israel, the UK, and the US, the world would likely see the virus disappearing from such countries in the next few months, there was still an elephant in the room— variants of concern— the way the virus keeps on changing so it can better survive.

“These variants have mutated to become more transmissible and in some cases, there is evidence that they can evade the immune response generated by current vaccines. The good news is that all vaccines still seem to protect people from severe disease and death with all the variants, however, the vaccines may not be as efficient at protecting people from milder disease and the ability to transmit the variant on to other people,” Oura noted.