Every time somebody drops the ball, we would be back to square one. And if you take issue with the amount of money that vaccine manufacturers are earning from global vaccination programmes, imagine what it would mean for pharmaceutical companies who produce a drug, even a cheap drug, that every person on Earth has to take every day for the rest of their life. Even small amounts of money become quite big if you multiply them by seven billion people, then by 365 days, and then by 20 or 50 years. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving.
Doctors who treat TB patients will attest to how difficult it is to get them to take their medication consistently for 18 months. And this is for a disease these patients have and presumably want to get cured of. Now imagine the odds that people will keep on consistently taking a drug for decades to come to prevent a disease they don’t have. I generally have faith in humanity, but I doubt this is a realistic scenario. Consequently, such a drug programme will always just be an add-on: anti-Covid-19 drugs and masks and social distancing. Still no return to the way things were before.
Regardless of your thoughts on the speed at which Covid-19 vaccines were originally developed and tested, we now have more than nine months of real-world data from many countries that show these vaccines are safe and effective. In the US, 99% of patients who died of Covid-19 over the past few months were unvaccinated. And because the same vaccines are used in SA, the US, UK and Europe, we can be guided by their data. Follow-up tests on the first receivers of the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and Pfizer vaccines have shown that immunity against Covid-19 lasts for at least nine months. (That is because these people only received their vaccines nine months ago and we have therefore only been able to monitor their immunity for that period.) Towards the end of this year we will know whether vaccine-induced immunity lasts for a year. Towards the end of next year we will know whether it lasts for two years. And so on and so forth.
Research also shows a significantly stronger immune response to Covid-19 vaccines than to natural Covid-19 infection, especially in people who only had mild disease. Even if the follow-up data show we may need booster shots, it will still be something that will need to happen only once every few years, not every day, and it will be far less risky than building immunity through Covid-19 infection. Vaccination programmes can also be monitored closely, so we know how many of our fellow citizens are vaccinated. Drug programmes, on the other hand, cannot be monitored. You can hope your colleague or the person in the queue behind you at the shop took his/her anti-Covid-19 medications that morning, but short of mandatory daily drug tests for everyone, we will have no way of managing and ensuring adherence to a drug-based Covid-19 prevention programme.
Of course, we should keep testing drugs for the treatment of Covid-19. It would be fantastic if we could design a treatment that would successfully treat all infections, and repurposing existing drugs will get us there faster. Therefore, I support high-quality research into ivermectin and any other drug that shows promise in this regard. But a comprehensive global vaccine programme is the only possible chance we have of finally and irreversibly finding our way out of the current pandemic. To be able to travel again. To eat at a restaurant, drink in a bar and dance in a club. To attend in-person conferences, sporting events, music concerts, festivals, religious gatherings, large wedding receptions. And yes, even funerals, where we can laugh and cry and sing and hug, without masks and without worrying who among us will be dead next week.
Dr Hanél Sadie-Van Gijsen is affiliated with the Centre for Cardio-metabolic Research in Africa (Carma) in the Division of Medical Physiology at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University.