Ghana: Discovery of Covid-19 Vaccines - the Suspicions, Mistrust, Misinformation, Cynicism

Ghana kicks off Covid-19 vaccination campaign with vaccines from COVAX (file photo).

Perhaps, never in history has the work of research scientists come under a barrage of criticism and cynicism, in spite of the fact that their work over the years has contributed to global development and transformation of society.

Since the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in Wuhan in December 2019, the work of the scientific community in finding cures and remedies for the pandemic has come under severe criticism.

First, it was the former US President, Donald Trump, who descended heavily on the World Health Organisation (WHO) for what he described as its poor leadership in handling the pandemic and threatened to pull out US support from the organisation.

Indeed, the race by the scientific community to discover a vaccine as an addition to the tools being used to fight the pandemic has rather brought their work under bouts of criticism, from a strong wave of anti-vaccine campaigners with all manners of conspiracy theories.

"It is not safe" ; "There is no medical emergency"; "It's a fake pandemic"; "We have no idea of the vaccine's long-term effect"; "It needs much investigation"; and "It might possibly change your DNA, and this is irreparable and irreversible for all future generations," are some of the strong words from the anti-vaccine campaigners.

They contended that the roll-out of the vaccines is an experiment on humanity linked to 5G network and artificial intelligence.

Additionally, they claimed that "the number of COVID-19 cases are falsely presented in order to drive the population to obedient behaviour into vaccinations."

Why such wild allegations and conspiracy theories? Perhaps, the scientific community members have themselves to blame for their inability to effectively communicate their work to the ordinary citizen whom they consider unlettered to understand such work, which is purely a specilaised field and too technical for the average mind.

The suspicion about the vaccines for the Africa region became more intense when a panelist in a video being circulated around said that the vaccine was meant to reduce the population of the black race because they are the poorest and are not contributing much to the global wealth.

Often, research scientists are immersed in their work and have their own high impact journal to publish their findings that only reaches a limited readers.

The scientific community appears to alienate itself from journalists, who are equally trained to unpack their data and information embedded in technical language to the understanding of the ordinary citizens.

They are quick to blame journalists for what they often say "misquotes" or "taken out of context." Journalists often feel reluctant to approach them because of their poor relationship with the media.

At the launch of the 25th anniversary of the Kintampo Health Research Centre at the Accra City Hotel (formerly Novotel Hotel) in May 2019, Dr Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, a respected global health leader, former Deputy Director General of the WHO, told the gathering of the research scientists that research would be "crowded, complex, challenging and competitive."

Dr Asamoa-Baah, who is coordinating Ghana's response to the COVID-19 scourge, had to add this: "People will be skeptical about research and question scientists about their work; their perception is that they will no longer want to be used as guinea pigs."

Are COVID-19 vaccines safe?

Notwithstanding the strong wave of anti-vaccine campaigns, it cannot be over-emphasised that scientific research will continue to drive global development for prosperity and well being.

Indeed, the discovery of vaccines for the global fight against the COVID-19 within a space of a year is a major breakthrough in the scientific world.

What is a vaccine? According to the 'Vaccine Knowledge Project", a vaccine is a type of medicine that trains the body's immune system so that it can fight disease it has not come into contact with before. Vaccines are designed to prevent disease rather than treat a disease once you have caught it.

Vaccines are of two kinds: Those that use deactivated or weakened viruses to trigger protective immune response in the body like the Oxford -19 vaccine; and the newer version of that vaccine that has triggered concern from the anti-vaccine campaigners, uses synthetic strands of the mRNA like the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

According to researchers, neither of the two vaccines appears to affect the DNA inside the cells. It has also been established that vaccines that had been used over the years had not shown to have affected the human DNA in any significant way.

Scientists have proven that the mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cells, where our DNA (the genetic material we are made of) is lodged.

Rather, the mRNA vaccine teaches our cells how to make protein to provoke an immune response which produces anti-bodies to protect us from contracting infections, should the real virus invades the body.

Research scientists undertake rigorous work in the development and clinical trial of vaccines. Researchers subject their work to vigorous and robust pre-clinical and clinical trials in five stages, during which the vaccines are tested on animals and then in a small number of people and gets larger once the results are showing good signs, before they deploy them on a large scale clinical trial and subsequently present them for certification and approval for mass immunisation programmes.

Clinical trials of vaccines are so thorough and meticulous that some vaccine candidates get knocked out of the "competition" largely in the stage 2 trial for safety and efficacy because of unconvincing results. Some vaccine candidates, especially for malaria, have been under clinical trial for over decades.

Thank God, researchers have come out with COVID-19 vaccines: the BioNtech-Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca within a space of a year for mass immunisation under emergency authorisation and approval, following the identification of the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2.

The vaccines will protect humankind from further debilitating effects of COVID-19, the second wave that is spreading faster in countries that had almost broken the chain of transmission.

It is estimated that about 70 percent of the world's population must be vaccinated (two doses) to end the pandemic. Five-and-a-half billion of people aged 18 or above would need 11 billion doses.

The Africa Centre for Disease Control estimates that the continent will need at least 1.5 billion doses to vaccinate 60 per cent of the population to attain the herd immunity.

The reproduction of the virus is represented by r-naught (Ro). The Ro is the average number an infected person can transmit the disease to, given the fact that the whole population is susceptible to the disease. If the Ro is more than one, the disease is a threat to the population and will eventually be endemic. Vaccination is expected to give immunity to the population and reduce Ro to less than one for the disease to fizzle out.

People who recover from a disease, hopefully gain some amount of immunity. Where many people are immune, the disease cannot take hold in the population and grow into an endemic.

It is in the light of this that vaccines are introduced to give more people protection for the attainment of the herd immunity.

Ghanaians are lucky to be recipients of this valuable tool to fight the pandemic. It, therefore, behooves us, as part of our civic responsibility, to take the jab and protect ourselves against the devilish virus. The sciences have proven beyond all doubts that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe!!

As the vaccine is being rolled out in the country, we must heed the advice by the Consortium for COVID -19 Vaccine Trial to strengthen our clinical trials and research capacity to generate data on the safety and efficacy of vaccine candidates in African populations.

Vaccine alone not a magic wand

Yes, indeed, the vaccines are not a magic wand; they are additional tools to help fight diseases when it comes to the crunch. The health protocols of wearing of face masks, regular hand washing under running water, use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, avoiding crowd and keeping to physical distancing have come to stay with us. Indeed, it is the new normal. Prevention is better than cure!!

We should not forget healthy eating habits and consumption of vegetables and fruits to help boost our immunity.

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