A Way Out of the COVID-19 Pandemic for the Caribbean Region
Dr. Swinburne Augustine
Dominican-born, Award-Winning Microbiologist & Immunologist
[Disclaimer: The opinions here are my own based on current scientific evidence. I write this in my personal capacity and not as a representative of my employer, the United States Federal Government]
The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome CoronaVirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has taken a terrible economic and public health toll on the global community. As of this writing, there have been more than 107 million cases with a staggering death toll of more than 2.3 million globally according to the universally respected John’s Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center [https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html]. The same source shows that the United States has had more than 27 million cases with more than 468 thousand deaths. Imagine, for a second, what this terrible death toll would mean for an island like Dominica with a population of 70 thousand people. In stark terms, the entire population of Dominica would have died almost seven times.
Whatever one thinks about the politics on our islands, no one can deny that something has been done right because the number of infections have been contained and remained low but more importantly, the number of deaths directly attributed to COVID-19 remain far below the disastrous levels observed in more developed countries. That is a blessing that every Caribbean citizen, at home and abroad, should be mightily proud of. Amid a torrent of misinformation and disinformation it appears that, for the most part, my fellow regional men and women have heeded the advice of their Governments and Public Health Officials. For that, I am proud! Keep doing whatever it is you have been doing because it is working and working well.
Now, I am certain that many of you have questions and doubts about the vaccines. Why were they developed so quickly? How effective are they? What are the side effects? Do they mess with our DNA? The technology is new so are we being used as guinea pigs in a global experiment? For others, religious beliefs or beliefs in natural herbs are at the forefront of their hesitancy to take the vaccine. I will address each of these briefly and in a manner that each of you can understand.
Why were the vaccines developed so quickly?
For decades, scientists have been studying coronaviruses and working to develop vaccines to combat their health effects. Remember, in 2012, a viral respiratory illness was identified in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) as it was called spread to 27 countries leading to 858 known deaths due to infection and related complications according to the World Health Organization (WHO) [https://www.who.int/health-topics/middle-east-respiratory-syndrome-coronavirus-mers#tab=tab_1]. Seven human coronaviruses (HCoVs) have been identified to date including SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV, and MERS-CoV [https://coronavirusexplained.ukri.org/en/article/cad0003/]. So, this is not new to scientists. What is new is the effectiveness of the novel SARS-CoV-2 in causing infections that have led to this global pandemic. Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology is also not new. In fact, in the Summer of 2000, at the end of the first year of my Ph.D. program at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, my classmates and I were required to take an intense Biotechnology Course in which we learned to isolate and manipulate DNA, RNA, mRNA and proteins. Those were skills that we would later use in our thesis work and many of us still use today.
In response to many who ask me why the vaccine was produced so quickly, I usually give the same response: Imagine if you were building a house and had all of the world’s best builders and all of the money in the world, how long would you think it would take to build that house? Not much, right? The same logic applies here. In the middle of a deadly pandemic with every government with unlimited resources, all the best scientists, pharmaceutical companies and others solely focused on getting us back to normal, seemingly impossible tasks can be accomplished very quickly.
How effective are the vaccines?
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are about 94% effective. That means they will protect a little more than nine out of ten people from suffering mild to severe infections and death. The AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine has been shown to provide 100% protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death. Overall, a study published in the Lancet, one of the world’s leading scientific and medical journals, showed that no severe cases and no hospitalizations were observed more than 22 days after the first dose [https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)32623-4/fulltext]. Protection was over 70% after the first dose. Importantly, results showed that there was a 67% reduction in disease transmission. The previously mentioned vaccines are two-dose vaccines that must be stored at ultra-low temperatures to ensure stability of the mRNA product. Johnson & Johnson has recently applied to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a single-dose vaccine that has been shown to be about 72% effective in the U.S. and 66% effective overall at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19, 28 days after vaccination. Furthermore, it is 85% effective overall in preventing severe disease and demonstrated complete protection against COVID-19 related hospitalization and death as of day 28 [https://www.jnj.com/johnson-johnson-announces-single-shot-janssen-covid-19-vaccine-candidate-met-primary-endpoints-in-interim-analysis-of-its-phase-3-ensemble-trial]. Another vaccine from Sinopharm have been approved in China, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan has been shown to be just about 79% effective [https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-55212787] while yet another from Gameleya is reported to have about 94% effectiveness but the data has not been published and should be taken considered with caution until it has been fully evaluated by the scientific community.
Do the vaccines affect our DNA?
The answer to this is a resounding NO! Our DNA resides in the nucleus of our cells and neither the virus nor the vaccine gets anywhere near the nucleus.
Religious and herbal beliefs
Having grown up playing the guitar in the Pentecostal Church on the island of Dominica, I am very aware of the evangelical thought process. Also, as a former student of the Catholic Church’s secondary school, the St. Mary’s Academy, I am also well versed with the teachings of that church. Remember though that God uses man to do His work on earth. It’s the reason that there are specialties: teachers, lawyers, physicians, scientists, farmers, fishermen, and everything in between. Religion should not make us dumb. Like my late grandfather, Aaron Augustine would always say in patois, “Education without commonsense is naught (nothing).” Growing up in the far eastern village of Delices, I know well about all the herbs that were used to treat us since we were so far away from the main Princess Margaret Hospital in Roseau, Dominica’s capital city. No one is telling you to stop your traditions. However, this pandemic is not to be played with. The death toll is too high and still rising. Be smart!
My daughter, Dr. Tamara Duclaire, is an Emergency Medicine Physician. She is on the frontlines of the pandemic here in Cincinnati, Ohio, where we live. She has taken both doses of one of the vaccines with no adverse effects. As soon as the vaccine becomes available to us, my family and I will be taking it as well. As a scientist with expertise in the fields of Immunology, Microbiology, Molecular Biology, and Public Health, with 14 years’ experience as a critical care and emergency room nurse, I have total confidence in the approved vaccines and their ability to protect me and my family. I have published numerous peer-reviewed papers in some of the world’s leading scientific journals and serve on the Reviewer Boards and Editorial Board of some of those journals. I am a member of some of the leading global scientific organizations including the American Association of Immunology (AAI), the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and the International Society of Global Health (ISoGH). Among my many awards for scientific rigor is the 2020 Institute of Caribbean Studies Caribbean American Heritage Award for Outstanding Contributions to Public Health. That gives me a very good perch to objectively evaluate and make decisions about the development, effectiveness and safety of the vaccines, the clinical data and the conduct of the clinical trials. What I’ve seen gives me the confidence to recommend the vaccines to my 77-year-old mother, Paulina Eloi, and others in my family. Each of us must make that decision for ourselves and I encourage you to make it based on the overwhelming scientific evidence and the advice of trusted professionals who have spent their lives studying and working in the fields of medicine, science and public health. Just as you would not take advice about your health from your mechanic, be wise in who you listen to concerning the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine. The life you save may be your own.
Finally, my fellow Caribbean men and women, the only way that our region and the global community get out of this pandemic is by wearing our masks, social distancing, continuing to practice proper hand hygiene and taking the vaccine when it becomes available.
© 2021 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post
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