As the second wave of Covid-19 ravages the country and the grim reaper harvests unprecedented numbers on a daily basis, the country has been thrown into panic while government tries to calm people with various assurances. But numbers do not lie and every day people wake up to new unsettling figures.
Standard reporter Richard Muponde (RM) had a wide-ranging interview with top health expert Professor Solwayo Ngwenya (SN), the acting chief executive officer at Mpilo Central Hospital, on the increased number of deaths, what could be done to flatten the curve and also sought his views on the issues of vaccines amid scepticism from some members of the public over the origins, motive and safety of the vaccines.
On Friday the Norwegian Medicines Agency said about 23 people died in Norway within days of receiving their first dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, with 13 of those deaths, all nursing home patients, apparently related to the side effects of the shots. Such reports are driving people to develop cold feet in accepting the vaccinations.
RM: Professor Ngwenya, how are you? You have been very vocal urging Zimbabweans to embrace Covid-19 vaccines. Your argument is mainly based on the logic that prevailed when we accepted and took vaccines for other diseases in the past without any problems.
However, this time there are fears in the public in the wake of social media reports that the Covid-19 vaccines have possible dangerous side effects. For example, messages have been circulating claiming that Covid-19 vaccines interfere directly with the genetics of the patient which literally means genetic manipulation. What will be your comment on that?
SN: We should not base our judgements on myths and rumours on social media. Properly approved vaccines that meet international standards should be accepted by everyone. Vaccines; it’s not the first time or the last time to have them. The way vaccines are developed, there is no way they will interfere with the genetic material of individuals. We are already being vaccinated from birth and we didn’t have any problems. We certainly had success where vaccines have eliminated certain diseases on earth. So I think it is a myth that once you are vaccinated it will change your genetic make-up. We should use properly approved vaccines that meet international standards. Those ones we should not have any problems with as we are already immunising many children across the country with internationally approved vaccines. I don’t see what the fuss is all about.
RM: In your opinion, if the vaccines are rolled out, is there a likelihood of flattening the Covid-19 curve in the country?
SN: If vaccines are rolled out, the curve together with the measures which we are already taking — the lockdown, social distancing, wearing of masks and so forth — they will help in flattening the curve. Our only problem is that we may find that the virus mutates and changes and then vaccines may not be appropriate or the virus outmanoeuvres them. We don’t know what will happen in the future, but at the moment, we should use whatever is available. If people refuse to be vaccinated, the virus takes its toll on them. In that case you will be sick from the disease because the virus is actually going to take your life. So whether you like it or not, one way or the other, as long as you are a human being either a vaccine will come near you or the virus will vaccinate you.
RM: Are the vaccines going to work in the same way as others that we get for preventing measles, polio and many other diseases?
SN: All vaccines when they are developed, the aim is first to get everyone immune to the virus and evocatively, people once they are immune, they will just get a cold flu and not a severe disease or they may not get infected at all and eventually the virus may be defeated like in other places where they wiped out polio. So yes, it will be a similar way of doing things.
RM: Is there a need to vaccinate everyone or will the vaccines be targeted at particular people with particular challenges?
SN: If every resource is available, it will be the best they vaccinate all Zimbabweans. Obviously those will have to volunteer as I am already getting that some people may not want. But unfortunately, because of resources, it will probably be a staggered phase starting with high-risk groups, health workers, the elderly and so forth till they vaccinate everyone. The best is to achieve 67%-70% of the population. In Zimbabwean terms it means about 10 million people out of the 15 million or so. You will have achieved what is called herd immunity, depending on the effectiveness of your vaccines. The vaccinated individuals will act as a buffer against the unvaccinated people and curb infections. So aim for at least 67%.