- It's been a year since the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a "pandemic".
- The contagion caught the world unprepared.
- There are valuable lessons to be learnt.
- The world is riven by deep-seated rivalries in every age or at every level
- Compassion, non-competition and altruism (i.e. think of the front-liners and the tens of thousands of vaccine trial volunteers) can be celebrated, like Olympics winners, too.
Dubai: A year ago, on this day, March 11, 2020, the WHO declared the coronavirus a “pandemic”. For those of us fortunate enough to see through a world interrupted, the contagion has driven dramatic shifts.
Let’s backtrack: On January 10, 2020, the first death from what’s been dubbed as "novel coronavirus" (nCoV-19), a mysterious pathogen that first emerged in Wuhan, China, which has no known cure or vaccine, was reported. There were 41 clinically-confirmed infections caused by the virus. Ten days later, on January 20, 2020, the first cases outside China were confirmed — in Japan, Korea and Thailand.
The next day, January 21, 2020, the first coronavirus case in the US was confirmed. That’s viral spread for you in the time of transcontinental travel. It, therefore, took the World Health Organisation (WHO) 61 days, from the first reported COVID-19 death to the time it declared the viral contagion a "pandemic", after citing "alarming levels of inaction".
The WHO has been assessing the outbreak around-the-clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming spread and severity (of this disease) and by the alarming levels of inaction. We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterised as a pandemic.
One year has passed since the outbreak of this pandemic, and today, we are intensifying our efforts to vaccinate 50 per cent of the whole UAE population before March to achieve acquired immunity against the virus, which will help maintain the health and safety of all individuals.
What have we learnt?
May we propose the following lessons, including the fact that transcontinental travel as we knew it, has become uncommon (at least for now). It's now a possibility that people can live simply, so that others can simply live. Another important point: viruses know no geographic borders... this unseen spikey blob has mocked globalisation like nothing has ever done before. Still more...
- Everything has changed: the way we work, eat, care for and educate our children, care for our elderly, and for each other.
- Face-to-face interactions between family, friends, colleagues have become a thing of the past; video visits are here to stay.
- Everything can end tomorrow, but your kindness today is important.
- Frontliners are the real heroes of our time; we’re fragile as individuals, and our strength lies in being part of a community.
- The global economy can take an unprecedented beating, with millions of jobs lost, but the earth will continue to spin, and life will flow again.
- Science can move fast, especially when people collaborate (with vaccines developed and approved in less than 12 months).
Key pandemic lessons:
- Cooperation from every member of the community is of utmost importance in early detection efforts, alongside social distancing, mask-wearing as part of ways to curb the coronavirus' spread.
- Vaccine production and vaccination drives are being ramped up, even as screening is intensified.
- With more trials being carried out, it's possible more vaccines will be approved, and help fill current production shortfalls.
- Sharing is caring, that all things (even bad ones) can work together for good, when done out of deep concern for our common humanity.
- In a world riven by deep-seated rivalries in every age or at every level, compassion, non-competition and altruism (i.e., by front-liners and the tens of thousands of vaccine trial volunteers) can be celebrated, too.
Absence and virtual presence
Others may have had important self-realisations, too. A year out, people have increasingly realised how far we’ve gone with our shared humanity:
- Physical absence does not always mean a total lack of love and care for each other; rather, it’s the opposite now that's true.
- An always-stay-at-home setting with children, parents and grandparents, can also be a beneficial situation for young and old alike.
- Communications technology can be harnessed to zoom past physical and geographic barriers, even helping improve productivity.
- Science can be accelerated — and all those dire prognostications from experts, i.e. a-COVID-vaccine-will-take-at-least-4-years — were proven dead wrong.
- Numerous COVID-19 shots were developed and proven effective in record time (using numerous platforms, too) thanks to collaborations and a spirit of volunteerism seen in all continents.
Is it the beginning of the end of COVID-19 pandemic?
It’s hard to say. Scientists are wont to state that, looking at ramped up inoculation numbers and a drop in COVID-19 cases, "correlation does not mean causation". It's an academic escape clause in scientific data interpretation.
Nature noted, however, the “good news” from Israel. “Researchers are seeing signs that COVID-19 vaccines are helping to curb infections and hospitalisations among older people, almost 6 weeks after shots were rolled out in that group,” the respected scientific journal notes. Israel was the first to release data showing vaccines working in such a large group of people (close to 90% of people aged 60 and older in Israel have received their first dose of Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine so far).
It cited data collected by Israel’s Ministry of Health which show that there was a 41% drop in confirmed COVID-19 infections in that age group, and a 31% drop in hospitalisations from mid-January to early February, Reuters reported. In comparison, for people aged 59 and younger — of which just more than 30% have been vaccinated — cases dropped by only 12% and hospitalisations by 5% over the same time. The figures are based on analysis of roughly a 250,000 COVID-19 infections. Consider some more facts:
- Israel has reported a 94 per cent drop in symptomatic COVID-19 infections. That number came from a rather huge sample — 600,000 people who received two doses.
- The 600,000 people involved in the study received Pfizer’s vaccine, and forms part of Israel’s biggest study of its kind to date.
- The same group was also 92 per cent less likely to develop severe illness from the virus. The comparison was against a group of the same size, with matching medical histories, who had not received the vaccine.
- Israel saw an even bigger drop of 61.83 per cent in COVID-19 cases from the January 17, 2021 peak (8,624) to 3,292 on March 9, 2021.
- In the UAE, which has the world’s second-highest number of doses administered per 100 people (after Israel) case numbers may already have peaked, based on official figures.
- The UAE saw a 27.05 per cent decline in cases from the peak in the fourth week of January (3,743 cases on January 29, 2021) to 2,087 on March 10, 2021, based on NCEMA data, as vaccinations get ramped up in the country.
- With 64.38 doses administered per 100 people (as of March 10, 2021), the Emirates is expected to see a marked impact.
- The US saw a drop of 75.18 per cent in COVID-19 daily cases from the January 8, 2021 peak (259,571) to 64,414 on March 9, based on JHU’s seven-day averages.
- The UK saw an even bigger drop of 61.83 per cent in COVID-19 cases from the January 17, 2021 peak (8,624) to 3,292 on March 9, based on seven-day average of the Johns Hopkins University data.
[Data: NCEMA, Johns Hopkins University, Our World in Data]
⬛ The phrase “correlation does not imply causation” refers to the inability to legitimately deduce a cause-and-effect relationship between two events or variables solely on the basis of an observed association or correlation between them
Are these definitive proof that COVID-19 vaccines work?
Experts are careful not to declare victory over the virus, just yet.
“It takes about 40 per cent to 50 per cent vaccination to get any effect, so it is unlikely that you are seeing the effects outside of Israel and the UK. Even the USA is uneven,” Dr Nicanor Austriaco OP, a molecular biologist at Providence (US), who also runs Austriaco Laboratory, told Gulf News.
So far, as of March 11, 2021, 95.7 million doses have been administered in the US (population: 328.2 million), with an average vaccination rate of 2.17 million doses per day. Dr Austriaco, pointed out that there has been significant drops in cases even in places without vaccination. Mask mandates, social distancing and other non-vaccine interventions could play a role in this.
At about four weeks after the start of the vaccination drive, when actually most people will only have had a single dose, they’re beginning to see an effect.
Chile is among the top countries globally in terms of vaccinations, with at least 4,948,483 doses of COVID vaccines administered so far, or about 13.1 per cent of the population.
On March 8, 2021, Chile rose to the top of daily COVID vaccine doses per 100 people at 1.08. During the last week reported, Chile averaged about 154,562 doses administered each day. At that rate, it will take a further 25 days to administer enough doses for another 10 per cent of the population.
But is it a clear signal?
Prof Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of East Anglia in the UK, told Reuters the figures from Israel in the over 60s when compared to younger age groups were “a really clear signal” of “a fairly sustained decline in hospitalisations”. “At about four weeks after the start of the vaccination drive, when actually most people will only have had a single dose, they’re beginning to see an effect,” he said.
The drop in hospital admissions in Israel was happening, he said, “too soon” for it to have been the result only of people having had both the first and second doses
Gradual decrease in COVID-19 cases in the UAE
The UAE has also seen a gradual decrease in COVID-19 infection rate over the past two weeks. In its press briefing, the National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority (NCEMA) said, “this is a positive sign and a step to recovery and the resumption of normal life”.
Till date, the UAE has provided more than six million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to more than 3.7 million people. The provision of the vaccine to a total of 3,777,143 residents has increased the share of vaccine recipients to 48.71 per cent of the target group. Moreover, 64.52 per cent of older residents have already received the vaccine.
The findings from this study provide preliminary but important evidence of the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing severe cases of COVID-19 at the national level.
Evidence preliminary, but important
The Israeli study has stated its limits: a reliance on preliminary and aggregated data, a limited ability to account for effects and possible differences in adherence to mitigation measures (mask-wearing, social distancing) between the age groups examined.
But the results, even if preliminary, is hard to ignore. First, the data sets are huge, more than all the vaccine phase 3 trials globally put together. Since the implementation of the country’s vaccination program, the ratio of mechanical ventilation in adults aged 70 years and older compared with adults younger than age 50 years dropped from 5.8:1 to 1.9:1. — a decline of 67%.
The decline “began around the time of commencement of administration of the second vaccine dose. This might reflect the effects of the first dose, an observation that is consistent with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine phase 3 results, which demonstrated partial efficacy after the first dose,” the authors noted.
Vaccines help limit disease spread
Yair E. Lewis, MD, PhD, of Maccabi Healthcare Services in Tel-Aviv, and colleagues said their findings reinforced the observation that COVID-19 vaccines can “help limit spread of disease and potentially reduce the occurrence of severe disease. The findings from this study provide preliminary but important evidence of the effectiveness of vaccines in preventing severe cases of COVID-19 at the national level.”
• “Our wise leadership has always believed that health is the nation’s greatest wealth, and thus we have dedicated our efforts to translate their vision, which puts the health and safety of the community at the forefront of its priorities.
• One year has passed since the outbreak of this pandemic, and today, we are intensifying our efforts to vaccinate 50 per cent of the whole UAE population before March to achieve acquired immunity against the virus, which will help maintain the health and safety of all individuals. Through the “Hope Consortium”, we send a message of hope to the whole world, as we continue to provide and deliver billions of COVID-19 doses across all parts of the world.”
• “We will maintain what has been achieved so far to ensure the readiness of the healthcare sector, continue providing world-class healthcare services and carrying out distinguished initiatives and programmes that aim to achieve our vision ‘A healthier Abu Dhabi’ despite all the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
• “We will also continue to expand the scope of testing nationwide to facilitate the early detection of COVID-19 cases, carry out the necessary treatment, employ AI capabilities, and take advantage of the robust and advanced digital infrastructure of the emirate’s healthcare sector to launch remote healthcare platforms and focus on the most vulnerable groups who are more prone to COVID-19 complications in order to maintain their health and safety.”
• “This has been extortionary year and a challenging ride. Nonetheless, it has also been a year of achievements and opportunities. It inspired us to keep moving forward and continue to lead by example in effectively responding to the pandemic. This would have not been possible without the unwavering support of our ambitious leadership, and the dedication and restless efforts of our front-line heroes who proudly continued their mission to safeguard the health and safety of all members of the community.
• "Each and every member of the community also played a vital role in making these achievements happen, by adopting the preventive measures and working all together to overcome this crisis,” Al Hamed said.