The Country Representative for the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Erica Wheeler, is applauding the development of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Dr Wheeler told Guardian Media the vaccine techniques which were being studied for more than a decade prior to the onset of COVID-19 are nothing short of a 21st century miracle, and a huge breakthrough. Without it, she says, even more people would have died from complications associated with COVID-19.
“The mRNA is actually not new in terms of the technology used to create it. It has been around for more than a decade,” Dr Wheeler explained. “In addition, all the other types of vaccines we get—such as yellow fever, measles, mumps, rubella and others—those techniques were also used to develop other vaccines like AstraZeneca and Sinopharm and Johnson & Johnson. So again, the methods of developing those vaccines are absolutely not new. If you did proper scientific research, you would see that those [techniques] have been around for some time, so there is nothing to fear.”
Dr Wheeler said there are many new technological advances which millions of people utilise without question.
“We use technology for our pleasure in the 21st century. We have fancy phones, and we don’t think they have been developed too fast,” she points out. “We have all types of modern technology and drugs that help us to live longer in the 21st century, but we don’t complain about those.”
She added: “It is the same with the [COVID] vaccines. We have the technology. We have the people, the scientists. So, it is something to be celebrated because in the last pandemic in 1918, this did not exist, and many more millions of people died.”
Dr Wheeler points to the fact that countries of the world united to ensure a solution was found to COVID-19 for everyone.
“We saw an international structure put in place in order to distribute vaccines,” she notes. “The reality is when you live in small island developing states like ours, and some of those in the Caribbean that do not a high GDP [and national income], it is quite possible that there could be vaccines elsewhere in the world and you cannot purchase them. But this [COVAX] facility allowed countries to get vaccines free of charge—they did not have to pay in order to get those vaccines. They were given to them.”
She admits that there are problems with vaccine supply and inequity but says that blame for this cannot be attributed to the COVAX facility.
“It is an issue that the larger, richer countries did not put enough of a supply into COVAX, and this is something the WHO Director General and our PAHO Director have spoken of time and time again, when they talked about vaccine equity,” Dr Wheeler says, noting the situation has improved somewhat.
“Now a new target—instead of 20% of the population to be vaccinated, the Director General increased that to 40% by the end of the year,” she said, “although we know globally some countries have not reached that benchmark.”
Trinidad and Tobago has surpassed the WHO target, with between 47-48 per cent of the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19.
“This is something to celebrate,” the PAHO/WHO rep says, “that the Government was able to procure the number of vaccines they did in the period of time over this year because some countries in the world still don’t have enough vaccines for their people.”
Other things which Dr Wheeler says must be celebrated include the creation of anti-viral vaccines, the development of which is being closely monitored and explored, as well as the transfer of the scientific technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
She points to the fact that mRNA vaccine technology has been made accessible, and now South Africa is able to produce such vaccines.
“Should we unfortunately be hit by [another] pandemic, never again would only a few countries in the world will have the technology to develop vaccines,” she said.
The PAHO/WHO rep also points to the fact that the University of the West Indies has the capability to do genomic sequencing, which means the region can learn very quickly when a new variant of the coronavirus behind COVID-19 has begun to show up in Caribbean populations—an important help to policy makers of those countries.
Dr Wheeler urges the population to take care of their health in 2022, even though Omicron is proving to be a milder form of COVID-19. She encourages adherence to the 3Ws—wash your hands, wear your mask and watch your distance—and other health protocols the authorities have put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Dr Wheeler was guest on CNC3’s The Morning Brew show, on Friday 31 December 2021.