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- Over 100 scientists have signed an open letter demanding WHO adopt strategies beyond vaccines to fight COVID-19.
- The global strategy involves acknowledging the virus is airborne, promoting the use of high-quality face masks, effective ventilation, establishing consistent safety measures, and providing support to achieve global vaccine equity
- The specialists warn that vaccines alone will not get us out of the pandemic
Over 100 public health experts, clinicians, and scientists have signed an open letter urgently calling for the World Health Organization (WHO) to adopt something called a “vaccines-plus” strategy in the fight against COVID-19. This type of strategy utilizes a combination of vaccination, public health measures, and financial support.
The letter, published in The BMJ last week, states that while vaccines greatly reduce the risk of serious illness and death, they are not enough to fight the rapidly mutating virus. For instance, compared to earlier variants, Omicron is much more likely to infect those who have been vaccinated or who have been exposed to previous COVID-19 variants. The result is unchecked COVID-19 transmission, causing more lockdowns, further disruption to education, and additional economic blows.
What exactly does a vaccines-plus initiative look like? According to the authors, there are five main recommendations. Here, we highlight each.
Call COVID-19 an Airborne Pathogen
Scientists began urging WHO to recognize COVID-19 as an airborne virus since July 2020. While WHO has since clarified that airborne transmission, as well as droplet transmission between close contacts, spreads COVID-19, that messaging is still murky in certain countries.
“The public health authorities in Sweden still claim COVID only spreads via droplets at short distances,” one of the signatories, Emil J. Bergholtz, a professor of theoretical physics at Stockholm University, told Verywell. “In fact, they have several times claimed that face masks may even increase the spread of the disease.”
Promote the Use of High-Quality Face Masks
Although the benefits of wearing a mask to protect against COVID-19 are well established, the authors say there’s confusion about when people need to wear a mask and which one is best. Additionally, ever-changing public health messaging has led to resistance towards mask wearing.
“There’s this idea [in the U.K.] that even simple measures, like masks, are restrictive,” Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, told Verywell. “We were told that masks weren’t effective while most of Southeast Asia was already wearing masks.”
To provide clear guidance, the signatories suggest WHO clearly promote mask use at indoor gatherings and other high-transmission settings. The preferred options should include respirators, like N95, P2/FFP2 or KF94.
Advise on Effective Ventilation
Opening windows is good for circulating air, but it is not enough. While the team behind the letter didn’t offer many meaningful ways to “ensure all public buildings are optimally designed, built, adapted, and utilized to maximize clean air for occupants” like they demand, they referenced a handful of studies that suggest proper air filtration can reduce COVID-19 transmission, even by as much as 37%.
Establish Criteria for Imposing (or Relaxing) Measures to Curb COVID Spread
Depending on levels of COVID transmission in a given community, specific safety protocols should be put into place. But right now, there’s nothing specific or consistent about when a safety measure—like a lockdown—should go into place or be lifted.
Gurdasani adds that while methods like contact tracing, quarantining, and isolating are invaluable to curbing COVID-19 spread, they aren’t realistic if people don’t support them.
“We had the COVID app in the U.K., but usage was very, very low and public messaging around it was very, very poor,” she says. “Getting ‘pinged’ or isolating was seen an inconvenience when it’s actually a very important public health measure to contain spread.”
During the summer of 2021, following the lift of most major restrictions, the term “pingdemic” became popular in the U.K. It refers to the annoyance of being told to self isolate by the U.K. COVID-19 app
In addition, people will not be willing to isolate if they can’t afford to.
There are a few countries doing a good job of offering financial support during isolation or quarantine. In Portugal, if you’ve simply been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, you are entitled to your full pay for 14 days. In the Czech Republic, employees are entitled to 60% of their earnings for 14 days if they have to quarantine (after that, a sickness insurance benefit kicks in).
- Quarantine is the term for what you do when you have only been exposed (in close contact with) someone who has COVID.
- Isolation is the term for what you do when you have a confirmed COVID infection,
Support Measures to Achieve Global Vaccine Equity
While the letter authors call for suspension of vaccine patents and the creation of regional vaccine production centers, one issue with vaccine equity is the delicate nature of the vaccines themselves.
Pfizer’s vaccine, for example, initially needed to be stored in freezers that run at temperatures of about minus 70 degrees Celsius, which can be difficult in low-income countries. Since its authorization, though, the company has submitted data to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicating its vaccines can be stored at 2 degrees Celsius to 8 degrees Celsius, the temperature of a standard refrigerator, for up to a month.
“Transporting and distributing vaccines that require very deep freeze storage is complicated, and that sort of infrastructure needs a lot of support,” Gurdasani explained. “It’s not as simple as donating X number of doses, because that’s not going to solve the underlying [distribution] problem.”
What This Means For You
Unfortunately, relying on vaccines alone will not get the world out of this pandemic. What the group of specialists is proposing will give us solutions in the short and long term that ensure health services aren’t overwhelmed, and the most vulnerable members of society aren’t the ones who suffer the most.
The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page,