As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc over our island, many are hoping for a brighter and safer 2021 – or at best to be able to join loved ones for kite flying and hot cross buns on Good Friday. Here’s everything you need to know about the vaccine: when it will get here, who has priority to receive it, and the science behind it.
Which vaccine is arriving on the island?
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine will be the first on the island, arriving today. The Government has also secured a second supply of vaccines from Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance which administers the COVAX Facility (A global initiative that brings together governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines reach those in need, wherever they live). The vaccines received from the COVAX Facility are likely to comprise of those from AstraZeneca and Moderna but no timeline has been confirmed yet on when we can expect to see them.
How many doses are we getting?
Bermuda is set to receive 9,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from the United Kingdom today. This is enough to immunize 4,500 people as two doses per person are needed for the shot to be effective. As for those administered by the COVAX Facility, a timeline has not yet been confirmed but enough doses have been purchased to cover 20 percent of the population.
How effective is it?
The vaccine is 95 percent effective. In the clinical trials, out of 20,000 who received the vaccine, only 8 contracted COVID-19 and only one became seriously ill. This is a great result as The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set an efficacy bar of 50 percent for vaccine makers. To put the figure into perspective, the widely known influenza vaccine is just 40-60 percent effective.
How does it work?
As explained by the Minister of Health, Kim Wilson, “The vaccine introduces genetic material called MRNA into the body that contains instructions to make a spike protein of COVID-19. In response to the protein, the body’s immune system starts to make antibodies which produce and provide protection if a person comes into contact with the virus.”
How will it be stored?
For long-term storage (such as six months) the vaccine must be kept at -70 degrees Celsius which requires special equipment. However, Pfizer has designed distribution containers that keep the vaccine at this temperature for ten days if unopened and can even be used as temporary storage for up to 30 days so long as they are replenished with dry ice every five days. The Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) has loaned a specialist freezer to the Ministry of Health to help with the storage of the vaccine.
How does immunity develop?
The vaccine is a two-dose shot with immunity being attained after the second dose is administered. It is unclear how long immunity lasts – the first phase of vaccines in the clinical trial were dispensed 4 months ago, so this is still being monitored. The World Health Organization says that a minimum of six months would be acceptable.
Are there any side effects?
The clinical trials have not shown any major or severe side effects. The most common mild side effects have been fatigue, headache, muscle pain, and pain at the point of injection on the body. According to Chief Medical Officer at BioNTech, Özlem Türeci these are “common reactions you would have with [any] vaccination”.
Who will be on the priority list?
With Bermuda’s aging population, the need for a vaccine to protect our elderly community is far greater than in most other countries. The ministry is using census data to ensure that the most vulnerable members of our community receive the vaccine first, as well as frontline health care professionals who are in close contact with clients and patients on a daily basis.
The rest of the population can expect to be next in line. It is unknown whether there will be a cost associated with receiving the vaccine at this time. Health minister, Kim Wilson stressed that the vaccinations are voluntary, but the Government would like to see at least 60 percent of our population vaccinated.
Will I need to be vaccinated to travel?
While this is not a requirement at present, it is very probable that airlines may require proof of immunization to cross international borders. Minister of Health, Kim Wilson stated that “the International Air Transport Association has already started to create a vaccine passport for pilots and crew of airlines and, as part of their future plans, vaccine passports for travelers will be included”. Wilson also added, “Bermuda will keep ahead of this need for credentials so that our borders can remain open to our own citizens”.
Does this mean we can stop wearing masks?
No! We must all continue to follow public health guidelines such as wearing masks and social distancing. The first phase of vaccinations across the island will not end the pandemic. COVID-19 is still here residing on our island with no immediate plans to leave. Getting the vaccine and following public health guidelines offers the best and safest protection from the virus.