Cyprus needs to manage the coronavirus pandemic as if there was no vaccine, as the majority of COVID-19 vaccines have yet to be licensed, with the rollout of inoculation programmes across the EU and Cyprus being significantly set back.
“At the moment, with the data we have before us, we should act as if we do not have a vaccine”, said Dr. Christos Petrou, Associate Professor of Pharmacy at the University of Nicosia, arguing that measures taken so far have not paid off.
“The fact that measures have failed is clear and alternative formulas should be found. However, that is the task of epidemiologists,” said the professor, who is also involved in the government’s vaccine rollout plans.
He explained that with just a few thousand doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines made available every week, Cyprus has no choice but to try and bring the pandemic under control while waiting for hundreds of thousands of doses to arrive.
With Moderna’s vaccine getting the green light from the EMA on Wednesday, Cyprus will have a few thousand vaccines more a week, but this will still not be enough to tame the outbreak.
Dr Petrou said that this will not happen for at least another month as Cyprus, along with its fellow EU member states, have placed the majority of their COVID-19 vaccine order with AstraZeneca which has yet to submit final clinical data and apply for approval from the European Medicine Agency (EMA).
Cyprus is expected to receive 1.2 million doses, almost half of its 3 million order from Astra Zeneca, with Petrou arguing that other vaccines are to come later than expected. He said that some 600,000 doses ordered from Sanofi may be available as late as October, “if clinical trials are successful”.
Asked why the EU had placed most of its eggs in AstraZeneca’s basket, Dr Petrou explained that the EU wanted to guarantee a large portion of vaccines before the end of the year, making deals as early as September.
“At the time, and mainly due to a successful marketing campaign, AstraZeneca’s vaccine seemed to be closer to crossing the finish line than any other vaccine in the race. However, it was forced to stop clinical trials after a participant in clinical trials developed symptoms of Encephalomyelitis.
“AstraZeneca also had to deal with uncertainties regarding the dosage needed for better efficacy,” said Petrou.
Setbacks put them behind in the race
He went on to explain how these setbacks delivered a blow to an otherwise scientifically very credible vaccine, which put them behind other pharmaceuticals in the race, such as Pfizer and Moderna.
The EU has placed an order for 400 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine.
“There are a number of Chinese and Russian vaccines which are close to crossing the finish line or are ready, but have not been approved by the EMA, and are not expected to be any time soon,” said Petrou.
Asked to comment on the UK’s tactics to delay administering the second dose for people receiving two jabs of the COVID-19 vaccine in order to reach full efficacy, Dr Petrou said there is no scientific data on how effective such a practice can be.
“It could offer some protection, or none at all. The UK has found itself overwhelmed with new COVID-19 cases, with its National Healthcare System on the verge of collapse, and the authorities looking to offer protection to as many people as possible,” he explained.
In Cyprus, he argued, we need to be patient and follow the instructions of the pharmaceuticals when deploying our vaccination programme.
“It could be the case that the vaccine and the way it was presented has fueled high expectations. As if the virus would disappear once countries start rolling out their vaccination programmes,” he argued.
Petrou said that the Cyprus health authorities were aware that this winter would be difficult with an influx of new cases.
“We just did not expect it to be this bad,” he added, noting that the surge cannot be attributed to a new potent strain first found in the UK.
“We were aware of the fact that the virus was mutating since September. The reason why things got out of hand so quickly was the fact that authorities opted to copy-paste measures applied in other countries rather than tailoring them to the realities of the island,” he argued.
Dr Petrou concluded that vaccinations alone will not defeat the pandemic and that other measures will need to remain in place, “until we have the capacity to inoculate the entire population and provide full protection”.
“A high percentage of the population must be vaccinated in order to be able to return to fully normal conditions. That percentage should be around 70-80%”.
He said that at the first stage it is important to vaccinate a high percentage of people, possibly around 20% to 25% of the vulnerable groups or those at risk of developing serious symptoms in order to decongest the health system and to be able to gradually relax measures.
Inoculation programme gets underway
According to the government’s latest update on Wednesday, some 3,901 people, mainly healthcare workers and care home residents have been vaccinated against COVID-19 since December 27 as Cyprus prepares a general population rollout.
The Health Ministry said the first phase of vaccinations included frontline health workers in state facilities (1,120), private hospitals (730) and residents of 67 care homes (2,051).
Twelve mobile units carried out the vaccinations during phase one.
According to the Health Ministry, half of the care homes have been covered and 70% of the residents got the first shot. The process is expected to be completed by Sunday.
Since the Vaccination Portal was established, more than 3,000 appointments were booked for people over 80.
On Thursday, appointments opened for vaccination centres in Famagusta and Kyperounda, while from next Monday, on a weekly basis, more appointments will be available on the portal.
Cyprus is expected to receive 6,800 doses every week to cover 3,400 citizens.
Vaccinations for the second phase of the government’s plan will be done at 38 vaccine centres island-wide and only after an appointment.
For residents in remote areas, mobile units are expected to operate.
Following the inoculation of those aged over 80, the rollout plan will then cover people over 75.
Cyprus participates in all six agreements signed by the EU and will get the vaccine batches according to the green light given by the European Medicines Association to companies.