Mauritius: Dr Sunil Gunness - "A dose of one vaccine and a booster of a different one CAN even be better than two doses of the same vaccine."

interview

Talk about AstraZeneca or any other vaccine and you will get a string of different reactions, some of which are emotional, others rational and based on what is going on in the rest of the world and a few reflect a deep mistrust of big pharma and governments in general. We took these comments and reactions to Dr Gunness, who has been doing a lot of research in the area. We also took the opportunity to talk about the quarantine, new cases, lockdown and how we ended up here.

"Forget about variants, forget about the name of the vaccination. All the vaccines are more or less the same with above 50% to 60% efficacy. They all have the same side effects and more or less the same contraindications.

"Birth and mortality are controlled by nature. If more people are dying from Covid, fewer have died from road accidents or from flu.

Last time we talked, you seemed optimistic that by the beginning of this year we would be out of trouble as vaccines were being rolled out. Today, we are in confinement and cases are being detected every day. What has happened since?

I am still optimistic and even more optimistic! So many vaccines are on the market and they are working! The infection rate and mortality rate are going down in most countries. There are ups and downs but in general the curve is going down.

But we are in lockdown, aren't we?

Yes, just like in other countries, we are having a second wave. You will agree with me that in general the authorities and the population are better prepared. Contact tracing is working well and so is the quarantine. There are no serious cases, the clusters have been rapidly found and well controlled. There are no serious cases to date and as I am talking to you today at this time, with the last figures from the NCC, there seems to be a flattening of the curve. I will here congratulate my colleagues of the Ministry of Health and Wellness who are doing an excellent job!

But how did your colleagues or whoever is responsible for decision-making, allow this second wave in, in spite of the fact that we were Covid-safe and that everyone coming into our island had to quarantine for 14 days?

Nothing is perfect. In spite of all the measures taken, there have been flaws at different levels: the population gradually went back to their routine, forgetting all the good advice we gave them and the authorities have failed to keep the enforcement of laws and see to it that the rules are being scrupulously followed.

Shouldn't the quarantine have saved us any way as there was no virus on the island?

At the level of quarantine, I am told that in some cases there was self-isolation. Was this carefully prepared? Were there any ways and means to see how this self-isolation was being observed? I don't know.

Did science not also fail us?

In a way, yes. Though the PCR remains the only clear diagnostic tool, it can show false positives and false negatives. It might be that someone with a false negative has escaped the vigilance of the health authorities and gone out into the community.

Now the way out seems to be the vaccine. The reaction has by and large been positive. Were you expecting that? Yes. I was expecting a good response to the vaccine from the population. We have sensitised the population and been transparent. We have shown them the advantages clearly with scientific evidence. Also, the population is intelligent and eager to come out of this nightmare. So it listens, analyses and takes decisions. With all this in mind, you can't expect anything else than a good, positive and massive response to the vaccine.

But AstraZeneca has been suspended in Scandinavian countries, Ireland and several European countries because of side effects like blood clots. Is it safe for us to carry on with it?

Yes, it is safe for us to carry on with the vaccine. The investigations done up to now do not show any direct link between the vaccine and the blood clots. I quote a recent Astra Zeneca release: "A careful review of all available safety of data of more than 17 mil- lion people vaccinated in EU and UK with Covid 19 Vaccine Astra Zeneca has shown no evidence of increased risk of pulmonary embolism, deep vein thrombosis or thrombocytopenia in any defined age group, gender or batch in any particular country." The International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis also released a similar communiqué on March 12 2021. So there really is nothing to worry about.

But the organisation of the vaccine seems rather chaotic, doesn't it?

Things are getting better organised logistically with many vaccination centres around the island. The vaccination programme will start again on Monday 15th March and private centres will be allowed to vaccinate. We are getting other types of vaccines and more doses. I was vaccinated at the Victoria Hospital Vaccination Centre and I was impressed by the professionalism of my colleagues and the organisation.

Can people who have already contracted the virus get vaccinated?

No, from a scientific point of view, an ongoing Covid infection can be a contra-indication to the vaccination. We advise people to wait 14 days after a symptomatic Covid infection to get vaccinated.

But how do we know who has the virus and who doesn't, considering that many cases are asymptomatic?

That's a good point so it might be wise to stop the vaccination programme for some time. However, I strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated.

As some people are waiting for the opportunity to take the jab, we hear the minister of health saying we have got a donation from the Chinese government. Catherine Gaud, advisor at the PMO, specified the next day that the Chinese vaccine had not been validated by the World Health Organization. Are we being treated as guinea pigs?

The two main Chinese vaccines are Sinovac and Sinopharm. They are being administered in many countries. More than 500 million doses have already been injected in people. Countries like Turkey, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Hong Kong and, of course China, are using them routinely. I am told Singapore also will be using them very soon. The results are very good compared to the other vaccine. The New York Times has recently classified them among the first as far as safety is concerned. Vaccines should not be labelled with the names of countries so long as they are efficient with acceptable side effects. We must take all the vaccines available.

Shouldn't we wait for the WHO's approval?

Yes, of course, but I am sure that that will not take long. Every country wants to vaccinate its people as quickly as possible. There is a big demand for vaccines around the world right now. The more vaccines we get, the better for us. We must thank the Republic of China for this donation.

There have also been contradictory answers by ministers about whether the second dose would be of the same vaccine or not. What would happen if we got the first shot and were told there was no more of it?

I don't think that is a problem. The University of Oxford has recently embarked on a study to test the safety and efficiency of taking two doses of two different vaccines. It seems that getting an initial dose of one vaccine and a booster dose of a different vaccine is similar and in some cases even better than getting two doses of the same vaccine.

Given a choice, which vaccine would you advise us to take? There is talk of Johnson and Johnson that is apparently more efficient, even against the new variants. Shouldn't we wait for that?

Forget about variants, forget about the name of the vaccination. All the vaccines are more or less the same with above 50% to 60% efficacy. The flu vaccine is efficient only between 10% and 50%. All the Covid-19 vaccines to date are efficient between 60 and 90%. They all have the same side effects and more or less the same contraindications. So everyone should go and get vaccinated as soon as the lockdown is over.

This second lockdown has wreaked even more havoc as whole families were hauled off to quarantine, some leaving their pets behind and others being robbed in their absence. What's the need for quarantine when everyone is locked down any way?

Lockdown and quarantine are not the same thing. Patients who are PCR+ve are put in quarantine and are followed scrupulously by the medical staff. If they fall ill, they are transferred to the ENT Hospital which has been equipped to take care of symptomatic Covid patients. Patients who have been in contact with PCR+VE patients but are tested PCR-VE are also put in quarantine for medical follow-up and regular PCR tests. Through this method, we are isolating PCR+VE and potential PCR+VE from the rest of the population. They are being following medically. This would not be possible if we left them at their place. We know that this involves a lot of social and emotional distress, but there is no other way!

But everyone is in lockdown. Isn't that sufficient isolation?

No. Our culture and our way of life do not allow us to self-isolate. We live interconnected and I very much doubt that self-isolation will be effective. When you look at the PCR results obtained in the last few days, there are so many PCR+VE cases amongst the people quarantined. If these people had been left in society, each one of them would have infected two or more people and you can imagine the catastrophic scenario we would have been in!

More and more cases, more clusters, late detection as the virus had been roaming since the beginning of February... Where is the good news?

The good news is that after one week, we can already see the flattening of the curve. This is fantastic news! Of course I don't know what we will see tomorrow, but up to now, things are working out.

But at what cost? Many people now are saying that we should stop this confinement business, open our borders and get on with our lives. Are you sympathetic to these demands?

Of course we must open our borders quickly. Vaccination is the answer to that. To stop living like rats, we must vaccinate our population as quickly as possible and we must adhere strictly to all the sanitary measures we have been advocating!

Some people are skeptical about the whole Covid-19 virus being as deadly as we are being made to believe. When you look at the statistics worldwide, the number of deaths last year is similar to the one in previous years. What are we missing?

This is the law of nature. Birth and mortality are controlled by nature. We live in symbiosis with other living creatures. Every living organism must have sufficient space to breathe. If more people are dying from Covid, fewer have died from road accidents or from flu. You must understand that today, there is a fight between Covid Corona Virus and common flu Corona Virus. Both of them will not be able to stay with us. It will be the survival of the fittest. One must disappear. This is the law of nature. This is environmental pressure. In my opinion, Covid will become our future flu. "That too will pass" as Eckhart Tolle puts it.

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