Dr Luz Longsworth.

The University of the West Indies is encouraging people to maintain a responsible, positive and open-minded approach towards the COVID-19 vaccine.

The university recently hosted a forum aimed at exploring developments in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, with particular focus on the new vaccines.

Panellists addressed concerns during the virtual event which was led by the UWI COVID-19 Task Force.

Dr Luz Longsworth, Pro Vice-Chancellor, Global Affairs and Principal of The UWI Open Campus delivered welcome remarks on behalf of Vice-Chancellor, Prof Sir Hilary Beckles.

She said, “This has been an unprecedented rapid vaccine development, probably the fastest in history. The UWI is pleased to provide this platform and space to engage with Caribbean experts, to discuss and explore some of the issues of concern around the vaccination, such as safety and effectiveness, what they do to your body and of course, the ethical issue around access.

“Given the nature of this pandemic, there are many myths and misinformation. As a university of excellence, it is our role to provide this means of engagement with our renowned researchers, scientists and practitioners such as our panellists and to explore what this new phase of COVID-19 means for us in the Caribbean.”

Immunologist and chair of The UWI COVID-19 Task Force, Prof Clive Landis spoke to the effectiveness of modern vaccines in eradicating smallpox and drastically reducing childhood diseases such as measles and polio through sustained vaccination programmes worldwide. He warned against the loss of confidence in vaccines due to misinformation spread by the modern “anti-vax” movement, which has resulted in an unnecessary and dangerous upsurge in the infection rates of avoidable diseases.

Prof Landis allayed concerns about the speed with which the vaccine had been produced.

He explained that since 2005, scientists had been working to develop a vaccine against SARS which is a member of the coronavirus family, and therefore the process of adapting this work to the sequence of COVID-19 was straightforward. Another member of the Task Force, Prof of Molecular Genetics and Virology at The UWI St Augustine Campus, Christine Carrington described the process of determining whether candidate vaccines are appropriate, safe, and effective for use.

She stressed the rigorous testing taking place under the supervision of independent bodies. She explained that some people may be infected by viruses such as COVID-19 but remain asymptomatic.

“Infection is not the same as disease. Many infected people show little or no signs of the disease, but, importantly, they are still able to transmit the virus to others, who may be more vulnerable to overt or severe manifestations. The recently approved vaccines have been shown to be extremely effective in protecting vaccinated people against disease—especially severe disease. There is also preliminary evidence suggesting that they also prevent asymptomatic infections, but more data is needed to confirm this and whether they also prevent vaccinated people from transmitting the virus to others.”

She stressed that the risk of a severe negative reaction from a vaccine is miniscule compared to the severity of symptoms of the disease itself. There may be minor side effects such as pain, redness and swelling at the injection site, mild fever, chills, or muscle or joint pain she said.

Head of The UWI Five Islands School of Nursing, Karen Josiah refuted common myths and perceptions surrounding vaccines and debunked beliefs that vaccines contain harmful substances or even microchips.

Chair of the PAHO Regional Immunisation Technical Advisory Group, Professor Peter Figueroa explained the measures being taken globally to ensure equity of access to safe, high-quality, effective and affordable diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.