Sri Lanka reached an important milestone today with 50% of the population fully vaccinated. Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate has been the chant for the pandemic response. This is based on the science of vaccines and global evidence that COVID-19 vaccines can protect against severe disease as well as limit the transmission of the virus.
WHO has called for all countries to vaccinate 10% of their population by the end of September and 40% by the end of the year. In the context of supply constraints, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) recommends prioritizing vaccinations for health care and frontline workers, the elderly (60 and over) and those with co-morbidities. For this, WHO has led on the COVAX Facility for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. Through its Advance Market Commitment (AMC) mechanism, COVAX supports 92 low- and middle-income economies, including Sri Lanka, to access donor-funded vaccines specifically for SAGE recommended priority groups. COVAX also has a cost-sharing mechanism for countries to access additional doses.
H.E. President Rajapaksa’s ambitious vaccination effort that spearheads Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response has long surpassed WHO’s targets. It is also likely to surpass its own target of vaccinating 60% of the population by 31 December.
At the centre of this success is Sri Lanka’s strong primary health care foundation. This has been adapted quickly for COVID-19 vaccine readiness in a whole of Government and whole of society approach. Vaccine deployment was initiated with coverage of frontline workers and then expanded progressively to all over 60 and, now, over 30 years of age. Further, given vaccine supplies, the expansion of coverage was managed strategically starting with the high risk geographical area of the Western province and subsequent roll-out to other regions. In the context of the predominance of the Delta variant, nation-wide coverage with increasing eligibility will reduce transmissions and severe infections.
Importantly, evidence so far indicates that all WHO approved vaccines protect against COVID-19 variants. Further, there is no evidence at this point that booster jabs are needed with both doses of WHO approved vaccines. Also, it is important that available supplies are equitably distributed to ensure global access to two doses for priority populations in all countries. Hence WHO has called for a moratorium on booster doses for the time being.
Sri Lanka has used six vaccines – AstraZeneca (Japan), Covishield, Moderna, Pfizer, Sinopharm and Sputnik. All except Sputnik have WHO Emergency Use License (EUL). So far, Sri Lanka has received 27 million vaccine doses, of which 12.2% were accessed through COVAX AMC.
Of course, vaccines alone are not enough – to quote the WHO Director General, Dr Tedros, we must do it all: get vaccinated, wear masks, disinfect and observe social distancing and avoid the 3Cs (crowed places, close-contact settings, confined and closed places). Compliance with public health and social measures is an individual responsibility to reinforce the collective vaccination achievement.