Vaccination: the way ahead

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

This is being written as I quarantine in my Waterloo apartment. Getting here was surprisingly easy, despite a great deal of bureaucracy. The story began in December 2019 when I travelled from Waterloo to the UK for a year’s sabbatical. I planned a busy year, with visiting fellowships at two German and a British University, and visiting status with two English Universities. It was set to be a full, productive, and fun year. And then Covid-19 arrived, and everything was put on hold. I did not leave Norwich for over a year but making a trip to Canada was increasingly urgent. Travel was not easy, cheap or pleasant.

The first step was getting permission to leave the UK. International travel was not allowed until 17th May, unless the traveller has good reason. There is, of course, a government website. The “Declaration for International Travel” has a drop-down menu of about 10 reasons, from ‘Work’ to ‘Other reasonable excuse – please specify’. I dutifully completed and printed it. No one asked to see it at any point. There were no flights for my preferred route (Norwich, Amsterdam, Toronto) so I booked from Heathrow. There is extensive guidance on travelling to Canada on the Canadian government website. Only four airports accept international flights: Calgary, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. At the moment, there is no recognition in the terms of travel and restrictions of vaccine status. I am fully vaccinated and have a flimsy little record card to prove it. I made photocopies for officials. No one asked or showed an interest.

To enter Canada (and various other countries) a traveller has to have a negative Covid test within three days of boarding. In the UK, private laboratories produce a “Fit to Travel Certificate for SARS CoV-2/Covid-19 Testing”. At a price of course. Also required is an arrival form to allow border officials to track you.

“Speed up your arrival process in Canada and spend less time with border and public health officers. Use ArriveCAN1 to provide mandatory travel information… Help … keep Canadians safe and healthy.”

The aircraft, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, seats about 250 people. I booked myself in the premium economy section for more room. What a waste of money, there were only 19 passengers! There was a full complement of very bored cabin crew and consequently we had excellent service and some interesting conversations. Clearly, they had time to check the passenger list, halfway through the journey they began addressing me as Professor!

On arrival getting through the Canadian formalities was straightforward. The test is a nasal swab. There was no interest in my vaccination status – but there were a few comments on Canada’s failure to roll out a vaccine. Mind you I was on an empty plane; the next scheduled flight from Manila had 350 passengers. The government requires you to pay for three days’ quarantine in a hotel. My choice was a bog-standard business hotel, where the confinement included three meals brought to the door in large brown paper packets. I understand Pavlov’s dogs better now. Within 24 hours I recognized the rustle from the moment the delivery person exited the lift. There was nothing to get excited about on the menu though.

At Heathrow I bought a couple of bottles of duty-free wine and when I checked into the hotel, I asked for a third. The clerk said that he was glad I asked before he checked me in. He is not allowed to send alcohol to the quarantine rooms! There was no corkscrew in the room and the desk said they had none so here are some tips.
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The Gap Widens

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

On 2nd May I had my second Covid-19 vaccination. It was my decision to have it earlier than the prescribed 12 weeks to acquire when I travel later in the month. The programme is so efficient, as before. The vaccination centre is in the food court of a major shopping mall in the city. At 4 pm on Sunday I walked in, and 5 minutes later, walked out newly vaccinated. I had the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. It is incredible how rapidly the programme has been scaled up. This probably cannot be maintained so a question is: how often booster shots will be needed? We simply do not know; my guess is it will be annual.

Although I and many readers live in countries where immunisation programmes are moving rapidly, we need to remind ourselves that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over. At the moment there are parts of the world where it seems to be under control: notably the UK and USA. There are places where progress has been and continues to be made: most of Europe falls into this category. Parts of Asia (China and South Korea) and New Zealand and Australia have managed to keep the incidence of Covid-19 cases to exceptionally low levels. Much of South America is in the grip of an expanding pandemic. In Africa, except for South Africa, numbers seem low. The news, though, is dominated by events in India.1

On Saturday, April 17, the world passed three million reported deaths due to Covid-19. The true total of cases and deaths may never be known: cases because many people have no or slight symptoms, and deaths because of under reporting in many countries. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) warns the world is

“approaching the highest rate of infection”

so far in the pandemic, and several countries are facing

“a severe crisis, with high transmission and intensive care units overflowing with patients and running short on essential supplies, like oxygen.”2

In addition, there is the question of Covid variants, where are they emerging, how fast, and how should the global community respond?3

The health, social, and economic impact of the pandemic is still to be felt in its true magnitude. The only good news is the speed with which vaccinations are being delivered, although there is unevenness in the pace with which populations are reached, both between and within countries. This is the Matthew effect from the verse in Matthew Chapter 25,

“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”4

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Ups and Downs

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

Spring is well entrenched in Norfolk. The leaves are appearing with great speed, the daffodils are past their best, and it is delightfully warm in the sunshine. Traditionally Spring is a time of regeneration and hopefulness. This is certainly the case in the United Kingdom where the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be under control. The number of new cases has fallen dramatically and has, in turn, been tracked by the decreases in hospitalisations and deaths. As readers of this blog know, although I try to track the global pandemic, I follow events in Canada – particularly Ontario, South Africa, and the UK especially closely.

In my last communique I reported receiving my first AstraZeneca inoculation. This week I am delighted to report that my partner received her second shot. Once again, the location was the food court at the Castle Mall Shopping Centre in the city. The procedure was a model of efficiency, although on a Sunday afternoon, it was quiet. We were in and out in 15 minutes. I asked if they would consider giving me a second dose. I want to be fully protected when I travel in a few weeks. We had an unhurried discussion, and the upshot was that, although they were willing to do the inoculation, we agreed I should wait a couple of weeks. The reason for waiting was that the immunity would be better if there were a longer gap, and, they thought, side effects should be less intense. I cannot praise the NHS and all the voluntary services that are making this happen enough.

The daily UK report on the virus has been of consistent good news. The reported number of new cases, hospitalisations and deaths continue to fall, while the number vaccinated is rising rapidly, including those who have received second doses. This is not the case around the world, the situation in Brazil and India is particularly bleak, not only are the rates going up, but the numbers are extremely high. A quick look at the excess death data gives a sense of bad the epidemic is by country. The New York Times does not seem to have kept their graphs up to date, the Economist has.1 Elsewhere there is cause for cautious optimism, but the price is constant vigilance. The economic, social, and psychological costs remain uncertain. In the UK this uncertainty will continue until the furlough scheme has ended. That will be when we understand how many people have lost their incomes. This will not just be those on furlough but so many small businesses who will either close or may fail.
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Science by Press Release

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

In my last communique I reported I had received my first AstraZeneca inoculation. I have, psychologically, felt as though my immunity has been building day by day. I also noted I had not, up to then, seen reports of adverse events. Since then, things have changed specifically regarding AstraZeneca. We watched as, because of fears of side effects and reports of deaths, European and other governments banned then unbanned the vaccination, said it should be restricted to over 65s, and then changed to under 60-year-olds. At one extreme South Africa is reported to have sold all the doses they had obtained to other African countries. This morning, Wednesday 7th April the report in the Guardian notes:

‘Some UK drug safety experts believe there could be a causal link between the AstraZeneca jab and rare blood clotting events including cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST). But they said vaccination programmes must continue, with risk mitigation for women under 55.’1

It is also difficult to make sense of the epidemic numbers. In the UK, the prime minister, flanked by Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, and Patrick Vallance, the Chief Government Scientist, use press conferences to inform the nation on what is going on with numbers and changes in the regulations. The official team is usually male, and when it is, it comprises two wise men and Boris! The data follows the same pattern: the number of Covid infections in the last 24 hours: 3,423 on 3rd April down from the peak of 68,053 on 8th January, the number of hospitalisations down by about 75 percent, the number of deaths (always prefaced by ‘sadly’), down from 1,348 deaths on 23rd January to just 26 on the 5th April. Finally they tell us the number of cumulative vaccinations, the good news, rose from 86,465 on 13th December 2020 and 31,523,010 on 3rd April.

As the months pass there is a growing sense of frustration and desire to open up societies and economies. The British Government has set out a road map to unlock the country. It was made clear that it was to be driven by ‘data not dates’. The schools went back at the beginning of March. At the end of the month people were allowed to meet outside in groups of not more than six. On the 12th April non-essential retail and restaurants and pubs will be allowed to reopen – but patrons will only be allowed to be seated outside! The one point we need to remember is that the return to pre-pandemic freedoms is still a long way off. Even if entertainment is allowed inside, then there will still be restrictions on the numbers, the idea of normal is not appropriate, we need to think of a ‘new normal’. The question on everyone’s minds was ‘can we go on holiday during the summer holidays, in Spain and Portugal for example’. The government remains extremely cautious on this.2
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Update on Vaccinations

I received my first Covid-19 vaccination on 12th March. The NHS team have taken over the food court in one of the malls in Norwich. They are operating with military precision, with appointments every five minutes. I entered the mostly deserted mall for my appointment at 18h05. Numerous people were on hand to guide the patients up to the area where the shots are being administered. It was extremely efficient. My name was checked off the list, I waited in socially-distanced seating, and was taken forward for questions to establish I was healthy and did not have any critical allergies. I then went to a nurse, bared my upper arm, was given the immunisation, and sent on my way.

The vaccination programme has been an astonishing success in the United Kingdom. By Tuesday there had been 27,997,976 people given their first dose and 2,281,384 had received both.1 It gives us hope that the planned relaxation in the lockdown can begin. However, supply issues may delay this.2

The hernia repair I described in my last letter is healing slowly. Having to self-inject the blood thinner was horrible, but that is now over. This experience, combined with the vaccination roll out, confirms the UKs health service is amazing. But it is increasingly clear one of the results of the pandemic is people will be expected to take more responsibility for their health. The self-administration of the post-operative blood thinner is one example. Self-testing for Covid-19 is another. Education staff, teachers and ancillary workers are expected to test themselves three times a week. Self-isolation is, as the name suggests, something one must take one’s own responsibly for.

Access to the health system is constrained and responsibility for gatekeeping is being devolved. I am not sure what the role of the General Practitioner will be post-Covid-19. An additional problem is that this transformation is taking place in the UK under a conservative government, and they are not a compassionate people’s government. There are calls for an inquiry into the pandemic’s handling. So, let us begin by looking at what is going on around the world. First there is an anniversary, yesterday it was a year since the UK went into lockdown. There is a growing restlessness and civil disobedience. Second, I have been writing communiques for over a year.3
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Warning: mostly not about Covid-19, but On Operations and Lockdowns

This is not a Covid-19 communique but rather a standard blog post. Don’t feel you have to read on. The reason for the change in emphasis this week is that Covid-19 events simply passed me by. The explanation is that I was engaged with the National Health Service (NHS), finally having elective surgery for an umbilical hernia. It has been a long road to get here, I am relieved to have it sorted.

I have always considered myself fit (but overweight), playing squash, touch rugby and running. A few years ago, I noticed I was developing bulge in my belly button. It was confirmed as an umbilical hernia. All the sources of advice: doctors and the internet recommend these occurrences need to be dealt with, and that means surgery. Two years ago, I arranged to have the hernia operation in Durban. It could have been a day surgery but, stupidly, I decided to spend the night after the operation in the hospital. It was that or go back to the flat. The surgery was straightforward, the hospital experience was not great. Unbelievably the morning began, at 05h30 am, with inappropriately cheerful nurses. I was on a men’s ward where all had more serious conditions and concerns, and felt somewhat fraudulent.

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Covid-19: Roadmaps and Vaccines

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – http://www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

The consequences of Covid-19 stretch far beyond illness and death. In this blog I will look at some of these, but I begin with a personal note. On Monday we went to the James Paget Hospital,1 which is about 45 km away from our home. I require minor, elective surgery to deal with an umbilical hernia. The National Health Service (NHS) assessed my situation and put me on the list. This trip was a ‘pre-operative assessment’ which involved being assessed by two sets of nurses, all very straight forward. At least it is now. The surgery was scheduled for the end of January but had to be delayed because of a surge in Covid-19 cases and admissions.

The hospital corridors were quiet, a notice on the front door says: ‘No visitors allowed’! All patients and staff must wear surgical masks. I had to visit two offices, but it took next to no time. The nurses say they have a sense they are over the worst of this surge. Make no mistake there are still people being admitted. On 22nd February, the local news reported four deaths at the hospital the previous day. The reality is many patients have put off attending hospital because ‘they do not want to be a bother to the NHS’ or they fear entering health facilities. There will be a huge backlog of people needing attention, and data suggests the excess mortality of the past year is due not only to Covid-19. In January 2021, Covid-19 was the main cause of death in the USA, with an average of more than 3,000 deaths per day. Heart disease is typically the number one cause of death, followed by cancer.

Back at the James Paget, a Covid-19 testing tent is set up outside the hospital. On this coming Saturday I have to be tested there, then isolate completely for three days. This means not seeing anyone other than the household, and not leaving the house or garden. I am also checking the availability of vaccines. Although the NHS is following a procedure, with nine priority groups (my cohort have not been called yet), people can check availability online and book if there are spaces. My half-sister and brother-in-law (in their nineties) and their daughter (about my age) have received their first doses. My sister, a head teacher at a primary school, has just received her first vaccination in London, and was offered a choice between Pfizer and AstraZeneca. Using the government website, I can find spots, but they are miles away.
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Covid-19 Vaccine Progress

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

We have been experiencing a winter storm in Norwich. It began on Sunday, as I started planning and writing the blog and continued up to the time it was posted. There have been Amber weather warnings for much of the south and east of the United Kingdom, with forecasts of snow and strong winds. It was not pleasant to be outside and I found myself wondering and worrying how the garden birds are faring. Hopefully, this will be the last bad winter weather for this season. It made the Covid-19 pandemic seem even bleaker.

The big news continues to be the vaccines. There are three vaccines in use in England and most of Europe. The UK’s evening ‘broadcast of doom’ used to only contain data on the number of new cases, the hospitalisations, and the deaths. It must be a relief for the news anchors to have something like ‘good’ news in the number of vaccinations that have been administered. I will talk about this in greater detail below.

It is pleasant to reflect on the fact that it is over a month since the failed insurrection and assault on the Capitol in Washington DC. That, to my mind, was the point at which Donald Trump let go of the last ounce of any real credibility he had. Joe Biden has barely had time to settle into the White House, but at least the country now has a President who listens to experts on the coronavirus, cares about the death toll of citizens, and is acting in response to the pandemic.
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Covid-19 Watch: Stops and Starts and Ups and Downs

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

It is hard to believe the first in-depth coverage, in the western media, of SARS-CoV-19 (more commonly known as Covid-19 or just Covid), appeared just over a year ago. The first reports came from Wuhan in China. The global reaction of scientists and health professionals was one of great concern over this new disease. For weeks, while they were hampered by a lack of reliable information, the disease spread exponentially.1 By the end of March there were nearly 200,000 cases reported around the world; the one million mark was reached on 27th April; 10 million by 8th November 2020. The year ended with a global cumulative total of just over 83,519,000 cases and 1,818,000 deaths.2

I remain in the United Kingdom. While in theory it is possible to travel, it is not recommended and, logistically, is complex. There used to be four flights a day from our little airport to Amsterdam, from where people (and viruses) could disperse to the four corners of the world with great ease. This was reduced to just one a day. On 23rd January 2021, The Government of the Netherlands issued a ban on passenger flights from the UK, Cabo Verde, South Africa, the Dominican Republic and countries in South America.

“The purpose of the flight ban is to prevent the further spread of new variants of coronavirus in the Netherlands and Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba. A docking ban is in force for ferries carrying passengers from the United Kingdom … The flight ban is due to remain in place until 22 February but may be ended sooner if there are grounds for doing so.”3

There are faint glimmers of good news and hope. The UK is rapidly rolling out its vaccination programme. This is the one success of the otherwise, mostly incompetent, national government. Within a few days the number of people I knew who had been vaccinated, mostly elderly neighbours and relatives, exceeded the number I knew who had died from Covid. A minor, personal, milestone. Happily, this gap will grow. The inauguration of President Joe Biden was cause for great celebration. He will have a huge impact in the United States and help change the course of the global pandemic. The US has already re-joined the World Health Organisation, providing people and money. Their anti-science and uncompassionate government is gone.

In Norwich we have experienced a cold snap. Over the weekend we woke to a light dusting of snow. It was beautiful but did not last for more than a few hours. Walking around the neighbourhood, my main form of exercise along with cycling, it is encouraging to see how many people have bird feeders in their gardens. The number of birds has increased. This may be helped by an apparent, but noticeable, decline in the number of cats. Twenty years ago, many households had a cat, today I see very few. The increase in bird life is observed, the decline in felines is a guess.
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Covid-19 Watch: A Rocky Start to the Year

Prepared by Professor Alan Whiteside, OBE, Chair of Global Health Policy, BSIA, Waterloo, Canada & Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal – www.alan-whiteside.com

Introduction

The most depressing day of the northern hemisphere year is reputed to be the third Monday of January. The Independent reports, ‘the formula is essentially pseudoscience and has urged Brits to “refute the whole notion” of Blue Monday’.1 However, as I sit in my shed, faced with grey skies and temperatures just above freezing, and Covid-19 numbers rising I wonder. We are breaking records for the number of cases and deaths. On the other hand, when I step outside into the garden there are signs of life and renewal. The green shoots of the snowdrops are pushing through the earth, the birdfeeder is visited by wrens, blue and great tits. The blackbirds eat the seed off of the ground. When there is sunshine, it looks full of promise.

The situation regarding the coronavirus pandemic is bleak. A new lockdown has been introduced in the UK, and there is talk of tightening the regulations further. We are being warned to stay at home; that the situation is at its worst for hospitalisations and deaths; and the future is said by the politicians ‘to be baked in.’ The legislation that gave the English government power to introduce new rules specifies these do not have to be reviewed before 31st March 2021.

I don’t want to be too much of a Cassandra.2 There has been rapid progress in understanding the virus and developing vaccines. Treatments are evolving and improving. Vaccines are being rolled out in an ever-increasing number globally. Many more are in development. My prediction is a year from now the pandemic may be medically under control. The social, economic, political, educational, and psychological effects will still be evolving. This Covid-19 communique, the first of 2021, focuses on vaccines, and has a guest article from friend and colleague Simon Dalby, ‘Seeing 2020: COVID, Climate and the Failure to Anticipate’.
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