To Jab or Not To Jab


Around June 2020, as pharmaceutical companies began talking audibly about possible vaccines for the coronavirus, there was talk of how our freedom of movement would be curtailed if we failed to receive the inoculations that were yet to be developed. The idea was brushed aside until February this year when Israel introduced its COVID-19 vaccine “green passes” for exactly that purpose.


As the public discourse on vaccine passports picks up with more nations considering similar measures, a British behavioural scientist reportedly warned against such a certification requirement.


Prof. Stephen Reicher, who has Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ear, cited social division as the most likely consequence of such measures. For residents of sub-Saharan Africa, this argument is not only laughable but shows how isolated the professor is from our reality. Many Africans have always had to travel to certain countries with yellow fever vaccine certificates that must be less than ten years old. Airlines would not issue us with boarding passes without the presentation of such certificates. Similar certifications are often required when we enrol our children into pre-Grade schools.


Those who have been to pubs will understand why that pint of beer may not be enjoyable if we aren’t sure of the status of the bloke sitting and shouting from the next seat. In the same vein, we aren’t comfortable being jammed into a lift to the thirtieth floor with an individual not wearing a mask.


As uSpiked has already noted, we have all at some time in our lives interacted with vaccines. When I talked to my parents during this investigation, despite not recalling the names of individual vaccines, they both knew that as an infant, I was given my first vaccine shortly after my birth, then additional ones every month for six months. My parents weren’t given much information those many years ago, but they knew that some vaccines were against polio, measles and tetanus. And that was the end of their list.


So, vaccines have been part of our lives. Efficacy aside, the most important consideration should be put on safety. The safety of poliovirus vaccines should be used as the gauge for COVID-19 vaccines. This was the same in 2015 when uSpiked looked at the dark side of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines that were being pushed onto pre-teen girls.


As we marked the first anniversary of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s pandemic lockdown last month, we in the media were still faced with the same hurdles that were there at the beginning of the outbreak. Reporting on the coronavirus, and now COVID-19 vaccines is like being at a shooting range and being tasked with shooting at randomly moving targets. Information that may have been right yesterday as you worked on your piece may not be right today nor the next day.


This has been the case with vaccines. Manufacturers would present favourable data in the morning then a few hours later fresh contradictory data would surface. Take the case of the AstraZeneca vaccine, for instance: there were claims linking the biological product to blood clots. For those of us who had previously suffered strokes due to blood clots in the brain, even if there was just 0.1% chance of suffering a blood clot, there wouldn’t be any plausible reason why we would want to take the risk. Believe me, I have been there. It is no fun living with the consequential blain clog. While being associated with Oxford University could be reason enough to consider ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, a day after AstraZeneca published the highly favourable data, there came claims that the company had presented obsolete data. Spooked, the company revised the efficacy numbers that lowered the efficacy rate by three percentage points. If they got an element wrong, how could we trust the rest of their data?


Hence the question: what the heck is happening? Once scientists from Oxford handed their development to a commercial entity, the pharmaceutical executives seem to have stopped listening to scientists. Considering that this is the vaccine for the masses due to its low cost and relative ease of handling, why does this company speak in tongues?


This is just one factor that makes it difficult for us to lock onto every one of these moving targets. Whatever could have been deemed right becomes otherwise a few minutes later. Just as fact-checkers were kept busy during the last five years, data being presented for vaccines are now keeping data journalists continuously busy. And it has become evident that statistics and journalists are not good bedfellows.


The war over vaccines touches every aspect of our lives. Even if science triumphed, and the vaccines could facilitate the eradication of COVID-19, the global inoculation programme would still have to confront multiple hurdles.


Some countries with financial might have block-purchased whatever has been shown to have some signs of efficacy. These countries have financial resources to pre-purchase the vaccines. Big Pharma is in the business of making profits. If a country like the US buys everything the companies are able to produce for the next number of years, of course, the drug companies will follow the money. Why would they squeeze in a buyer from some small country in Africa or Asia? It’s like going to a supermarket to buy groceries only to be told, “sorry, what we have on the shelves and the stock to come for the following three months have been purchased by your neighbour from the rich suburb”. You would have to seek alternative sources for your groceries or starve to death. This is capitalism at its worst.


Politically, the origins of vaccines are frequently brought into play.  Often, global politics dictates nations’ vaccine buying decisions. Vaccine candidates, like Sputnik V from Russia and CoronaVac from China, haven’t had as much publicity in the Western media as those developed in the West. The AstraZeneca vaccine’s initial bumpy ride in Europe was initially blamed on Brexit-envy. These conflicts have clouded our judgements and derailed us from asking the fundamental questions; How safe are they and do they work effectively?


The irony of some nations refusing to consider the Chinese-developed vaccines simply due to their origin is baffling, considering the fact that as they communicate their opposition to the Chinese-developed vaccines, they are doing so using their Chinese manufactured iPhones.


In uSpiked’s latest report, our Data Team consulted statisticians, immunologists, virologists and legal experts. The inquiry was initially meant to understand the issue of liability indemnity pertaining to COVID-19 vaccines. However, we couldn’t ignore the issue of the safety and efficacy of these products. This virus has touched us all in different ways. Nearly every individual living today must know at least someone who has been affected by this virus in one form or the other — whether through loss of income or life or simply the inability to socialize with others. Over 52,000 COVID-19 related deaths in the country are not just numbers to be stashed away in some archives to be studied by future students of history. These are people with families and friends. None of us can be free of coronavirus until all are free from it.


Attempts to leave some countries behind would be counter-productive in this fight. Whatever solution is found to fight the virus should be shared equally. The chest-thumping stance of the US that “we have vaccinated more people than the rest of the world put together” is a song we had heard before: “We do more testing than everybody else!”  And we surely know how that ended.


Back to AstraZeneca vaccines, despite the US having secured (through the greedy system of blocking stocks) enough vaccines to inoculate every American twice over, President Biden’s administration, like a greedy dog, decided to sit on the AstraZeneca vaccine stockpile the US had block-purchased, ignoring pleas from Europe, Africa and Latin America to release the hoarded doses. The rest of the world is desperate for vaccines. Given all this, it is entirely understandable for India, where AstraZeneca vaccines are mass-produced, to threaten to block exports of the vaccine before Indian citizens are covered. But we also know that India talks big and delivers nothing. Not so long ago, there was a product from India named Hydroxychloroquine, when PM Modi was shown the Green bucks, he decided to ignore those who previously relied on the drug for the management of their conditions.


Then there is the issue that has not been comprehensively addressed; genome sequencing. This is the science that helped discover the various variants. With Johnson & Johnson informing the world that their vaccine was 57% then 64% against the South African variant without ascertaining how predominant the variant was in the country before the December 18, 2020 discovery.


The public is yet to be informed comprehensively how the variants come about. Considering that the first case of the now world-infamous variant being discovered in two unrelated individuals in the USA with no links to South Africa. How did the variant end up in South Carolina? Should we not now stop calling it the South African variant? How many other countries around the world could be dominated by this variant and just waiting for genome sequencing to be discovered?