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Unjustified hype on coming COVID-19 vaccines

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by Dr B. J. C. Perera

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician

Many portals of information of various types of media are agog, enthusiastic and terribly excited with the so-called ‘fantastic news’ of the possibility of the arrival of a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. This little blight of a virus has been responsible for causing a pandemic that has spread through the entire world like an uncontrollable wildfire, practically causing chaos, disorder and bringing untold misery to virtually every nation on our planet. The Homo sapiens have been eagerly waiting and even praying, for something, be it a medicine or a vaccine, which can be used to tame this microorganism. They, the public, are practically wailing for a respite. There is intense expectation that a vaccine, against this bug would be the panacea for all ills of this nasty disease. There are reports of vaccines in the pipeline that are thought to produce intense protection against the disease. If that is the case, it would indeed be like ‘Manna from Heaven’ for suffering humanity.

There is intense expectation among the general public of the entire world and most definitely in the people of this emerald isle as well, that an effective vaccine against COVID-19 is just round the corner and would be available even within one or two months from now. Yet for all that, it is time, and time well spent at that, to somewhat critically examine the realities of the publicity and hype that has been catalysed by these reports. The general populace is of course totally justified in their expectations following these promulgations from a variety of sources. However, is it really the truth and nothing but the truth? Or is it somewhat far from the real and genuine truth?

Many claims have been made, at least by two of the purported manufacturers of vaccines that their trial vaccines are kind of around 95 per cent effective. These claims seem to be based on provisional and interim results of all phases of animal and human 

clinical trials, announced grandiosely in the public domain, even before proper completion of Phase 3 Clinical Trials. It is pertinent to remind people that Phase 3 Clinical Trials by sheer definition, should involve tens of thousands of human volunteers. By virtue of the lack of completeness of Phase 3 Clinical Trials, none of these claims have been substantiated through publication in reputed Scientific Journals. That really means that there has not been any intense and rigorous scientific scrutiny and peer-review of the results that have been claimed. What we have today are outwardly impressive and dazzlingly attractive statements made by the manufacturers of these vaccines, whose claims have not been

 validated and accepted by a discerning scientific community.

So far, no vaccin e against COVID-19 has been registered under any internationally recognized regulatory authority, or for that matter, even the World Health Organisation (WHO). True enough, the WHO has been examining the feasibility of securing an effective vaccine, its provision to the entire world and the tremendously complicated logistics of its distribution. However, that is really in anticipation of the arrival of a scientifically effective and safe vaccine. It is of course a very wise course of action to follow. If and when such a vaccine arrives, we should not be caught napping.

At least one manufacturer of a vaccine, that has claimed around 95 per cent effectiveness, has suggested that their vaccine would be available for the general public by the first half of 2021, which is just next year and perhaps just a few months from now on. Even then, are we likely to get it in Sri Lanka? Even if we manage to get it, is it for everybody in the country?

It is on record that millions and even billions of doses of the vaccine have already been contracted for and even paid for by some of the countries of the developed Western world. It will probably become a despicable tragedy of vaccine nationalism. ‘I’ and ‘We’ before all others seem to be the buzz phrase. The administration of one notorious leader from a very affluent Western country has compared the global allocation of vaccines against COVID-19 to oxygen masks dropping inside a depressurizing aircraft. They have so pontificated; “You put on your own first, and then we want to help others as quickly as possible”. Incidentally, Sri Lanka has no such contracts with the manufacturers of these vaccines. As these vaccines have not completed safety studies and as no recognized regulatory body has registered them, Sri Lanka is not in a position to make upfront payment and reservations for them either, even if we can garner the money in the face of an economic downfall caused by the virus itself.

At the time of writing of this article in the evening of 23rd November 2020, it was reported in the media that the G-20 Summit declared that their members would take all necessary steps to ensure equal and equitable distribution of a COVID vaccine to all countries of Mother Earth. To some in the know-how, this may definitely appear to be wishful thinking. Some of these very same countries that made this pledge are the same worthies who, not all that long ago and in the face of global shortages, hoarded supplies of respirators, surgical masks, and gloves for their own hospital workers’ use. Overall, more than 70 countries plus the European Union imposed export controls on local supplies of personal protective equipment, ventilators, or medicines during the first four months of the pandemic. That group also includes most of the countries where potential Covid-19 vaccines are likely to be manufactured. In fact it is well recorded that such hoarding of vital equipment, medicines and vaccines is not new. A case in point is that of a vaccine that was developed in just seven months for the 2009 pandemic of the influenza A virus H1N1, also known as swine flu. That contagion killed as many as 284,000 people globally. But wealthy countries bought up virtually all the supplies of the vaccine. After the World Health Organization appealed and intervened, several of these very same countries agreed to share just 10 per cent of their vaccines with poorer countries. However, the caveat of that ‘magnanimous’ gesture was the stipulation that they would do so only after determining that their remaining supplies would be sufficient to meet their domestic needs. As for the future behaviour patterns of these very same countries regarding a COVID vaccine, your guess is as good as mine. If history is anything worthwhile to go by, they would get up to their tricks, once again.

We have an organisation, The Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Forum of Sri Lanka, which was established over a decade ago. Its objectives are to educate healthcare workers and the public regarding vaccines and vaccination and to have a dialogue with the Ministry of Health on vaccine related matters. It consists of, among others, immunologists, microbiologists, paediatricians, community physicians and family physicians, who practice vaccination and/or have an interest in vaccines. In a recent communiqué, published in The Island Newspaper on 24th November 2020, they have decreed that the only way that Sri Lanka would get the COVID vaccine would be through COVAX, the initiative of the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), WHO and others. COVAX pledges to give all low and middle income countries equitable access to vaccines. The vaccines will be made available to priority groups. These include healthcare and social care workers, elderly, and persons with chronic non-communicable diseases. However, the most likely chances are that WHO/COVAX would be able to provide some vaccine doses to Sri Lanka only towards the end of 2021. WHO/COVAX has pledged that they would reserve a supply of vaccines necessary for only about 20% of our total population, and Sri Lanka will have to pay for them. They have also indicated that they do not wish to buy vaccines that exceed a cost of 20 US dollars per dose for any country. Apart from anything else, what the reaction of the general public would be to a scenario where only 20 per cent of the population is provided with a vaccine that is claimed to protect against a potentially fatal infection, is indeed mind-boggling. It would not be a surprise at all if the populace decides to get on to the roads in protest. There might even be combative riots.

In a truly scientific sense, the COVID vaccine research studies that have been carried out so far, apart from the claims of around 95 per cent efficacy, have not given us reliable information as to how long the immunity would last, how it might wane over time, the degree of protection in different age groups, whether yearly vaccination like the influenza vaccine would be necessary, whether the effectiveness would be just to prevent symptomatic disease rather than preventing infection by the virus, the absolutely essential logistics of transport of the vaccines, possibilities of major adverse effects that may come on after a protracted period of time, the manufacturing capabilities of the providers and the actual cost of bulk purchases of these vaccines. These are just a few among several other hitherto unanswered questions. In particular, we have no information about the use of the vaccine together with or without physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing. Would the usage of even an effective vaccine contribute to our getting on with life as it was in the Pre-COVID era? Would it allow us to abandon all the measures advocated by health professionals as proven preventive strategies? These seem to be queries that need to be addressed most urgently and ever so decisively, well before a vaccine is released for general usage.

We need to face the spectre of stark reality in the face of many unknowns in this novel virus infection. There are many significant questions and very few answers. Real and rigorous scholarly science dictates that these have to be firmly and truthfully dealt with before we can claim that we would be able to defeat this marauding virus by using a vaccine. Scientifically unsubstantiated sensational proclamations that trigger public hysteria and the vision of a bright light at the end of the tunnel, are certainly not of the essence, and are very definitely not in the dominion of the desperate need of the hour.

In such a scenario, the general public should consider these contemplations ever so carefully and, of course, sanity should prevail. For at least the time being, it is vitally essential to implement mechanisms to educate the public on getting vulnerable persons to hospital early for management of complications of COVID-19 and to prevent unnecessary deaths. As so eloquently expounded by The Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Forum of Sri Lanka, it cannot be stressed too strongly that it is absolutely essential and undoubtedly crucial to continue vigorously with the public health recommendations on wearing face masks, physical distancing, hand washing and related mechanisms, which have stood the acid test of time, even from the era of the Spanish Flu of 1918.

There is a recent movement known as ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ in the Western world. It has taken those countries by storm to protest against injustices to people whose skin colour is black. The Westerners sometimes label South Asians as ‘Brown Sahibs’ because our skin colour is more akin to brown than to real black. In case there comes a time when this world has a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19, all we can tell the foreign powers who control such a vaccine is that ‘BROWN LIVES MATTER TOO’.



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Features

Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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Features

The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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Better use of vanity projects; Cass apologises, and New Year graciousness

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A wise one, with the interests of the country at heart, calling himself ‘A Member of the Silent Majority’, wrote in The Island of Friday, April 9, offering an excellent solution for the better and genuine use of the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport which was built at a stupendous cost to both the Treasury, and wildlife abundant in the area, to satisfy an ego and sycophants’ cries of Hail to the King. Even sans Covid and lockdowns and shut downs of airports, the Mattala Airport was a white elephant, endangering and displacing the black elephants, roaming along their familiar corridors; receiving such few airplanes. Thus, as the writer Cass mentions says, convert the airport to a super hotel with excellent and sure-fire access to wildlife watching, like referred to hotels in Kenya and elsewhere. Yes, it will definitely be a bigger money earner than an airport waiting for a plane to land. Expensive equipment going rusty could be transferred to smaller airports being developed all over the island. There was such a hue and cry when storerooms, within the deserted airport, were used for paddy storage, but not even a whimper of concerted protest when the vanity projects were being built. We also heard that on the rare occasions a plane was to land/take off, peacocks in the area were shot at to prevent them flying into the planes. Aney, what a sin, just to have a name on a nameboard! Use the Suriyawewa Cricket Stadium too for a better purpose and less costly to water and maintain green in near desert climate conditions. What about a residential training institute for youth, perhaps in small industries? If the king-sized ego demands the name be present, OK, leave it. What’s in a name?

Any matter, financial or economic, with benefit to country buttressing it – refer to Dr Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne. Likewise, anything pertaining to fauna, flora and preservation of natural habitats ask Devani Jayathilake. Cassandra would give two years of her life (she does not have 10 left, she suspects) to know what the answers of the three wise and sincere ones mentioned would be to the proposal to convert the Mattala Airport, oops sorry – Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport – to a 7 star hotel for wildlife watching and then tourists proceeding to Yala and other places that were touted to be reached easier if planes brimful of tourists, landed in Mattala. Pipe dream even sans Covid-19.

The thought of the millions, nay billions, our country was indebted to China to construct these vanity projects aka white elephants of the Rajapaksa fiefdom sends Cass’s blood racing in her contracting veins. And now another hair-brained scheme is being exposed, not new but re-exposed: that of the stupendous amount sent direct from the Central Bank with no nod, as reported, from the then Cabinet or Parliament, to an American-resident con-man to improve our appearance on the world stage or at least American stage. My word!! Cosmetics of creams and colours and such like can improve the face of an already beautiful woman. But a country that was once beautiful, glorified, accepted internationally and then politician-spoilt, cannot be redeemed by PR work, however expensively. Nivard Cabraal was the then Govenor of the CB. Of course, as every Banda, Singho and their women say, nothing will come of this. Powerful political sweeping under the carpet in the presence of cardboard administrators and sycophantic hosanna singers, makes the matter disappear and not merely hides it. Unless of course there are enough intrepid outers-of-truths and persistent protestors, brave and national minded enough to continuously tease the matter like a cat its caught rat. Ranjan is locked away in hard labour for four solid years, losing his Parliamentary seat for misusing the gift of his gab, while convicted murderers of the right colour attend Parliament, escorted and all.

Cass apologises

To the reigning Mrs World, Mrs Caroline Jurie, for crowning, uncrowning and recrowning of the winner of the recent Mrs Sri Lanka contest. Caroline Jurie took this stride because the winning contestant was four years on the way to being a divorcee, which status forbids a woman from attempting to wear the crown of Mrs…. (country) with a view to becoming Mrs World. This title and honour is bestowed on a woman who promotes, holds sacred the institution of marriage and is a married woman. Cass castigated Caroline Jurie without knowing then the fact that Jurie had protested about this candidate being considered due to her impending divorce; and allowed to contest. She said she withdrew from the panel of judges since her point was not taken by the others. WHY is the Q. Easy to answer. The new beauty queen of shaky married status was a loud speaker in favour of Presidential Candidate Gotabaya R in Polonnaruwa (captured on social media) and probably spoke on stages for SLPP Parliamentary candidates. So of course she was slated to win; vision impaired over rules and future probabilities, She has her height – one advantage. Beauty can always be dexterously rubbed and painted in. But honesty is important and cannot be cloned or grafted in.

Cass now definitely faults the new Mrs Sri Lanka. She should not have contested, having her papers sent in for divorce and not retracted. What happens when she wins the divorce (or her husband wins it, however the divorce was first mooted). Another local contest? And if the divorce was still pending and she went overseas at great expense and won THE crown or a lesser one. To be returned forthwith when she has to remove the present gold band from her third finger, which probably she has already removed but hastily wore for the contest and when preparing for it? This is why Cass avows that many young women particularly, are so very selfish and forward and uppity and even dishonest now. In Cass’ time and even a decade or two later, a girl would never do what this new beauty has done, flipped aside a core rule and necessity of the contest, just to win by honest means or foul. Way the country’s going, my friend.

Post – Aluth Avurudhu

Cassandra is stuffed gill-high with kavun, aluwa and crunchy kokis, preceded by kiributh and lunumiris. She is fending for herself because a dip in Covid numbers and having had the jab, her domestic wished to enjoy a family new year having missed the last one, locked down as we were. Cass made her own kiributh – tasting somewhat like it should, but the sweets were all gifted her. So, also the offers of help, sleep-ins at others’ homes and solicitous frequent inquiries of ‘how are you?’ Kind and gracious relatives and friends, acquaintances too are thanked; and the most appreciated being neighbouring kitchen helps and care givers. Three-wheeler drivers who spin Cass around on errands too make enquiries. And thus her thoughts when resuming work at the nekath time and word processing this article. Sri Lankans are such good people: kind, caring, willing to share and genuine. And then specters themselves on this very sunny landscape: the dishonest, selfish, revengeful and disgraceful. Shrug them off, clear the mental picture and pronounce thank goodness for goodness around.

May all of us (decent people) have a very good year to follow today –Subha Aluth Avuruddhak!

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