A Nigerian virologist and lecturer of microbiology and molecular genetics at the American University of Nigeria (AUN), Yola, Adamawa State, Malachy Okeke, has offered what he termed scientific reasons the rampaging coronavirus pandemic cannot be eliminated.
In a piece he titled; “Post COVID-19 Era is an Illusion: the Epidemic May be Controlled but the Virus is Here to Stay,” Mr Okeke said unlike small pox which was significantly eliminated in the ‘70s, available evidences have indicated that COVID-19 is going nowhere soon.
He said the earlier the world realised this the better, noting that what the people should focus on is how to manage the pandemic to limit its consequences.
He wrote; “Is there any hope that the pandemic or epidemic will be ended by the current response measures and, will life return to normal where face masks, social distancing and therapeutic interventions are no longer needed? The answer to these questions is a definite “NO”. I will in this essay outline the scientific and public health reasons why a post pandemic era is highly improbable and the goal of response measures globally and in Nigeria should be to keep the epidemic under control but not to eliminate it.”
According to the don, though the rapid advances in molecular medicine, scientific brilliance and collaboration among scientists, and massive funding from governments and charities made discovery and rollout of vaccines against the virus possible within an unprecedented time frame, evidence has shown that the vaccines cannot protect against transmission.
He said the achievement of a herd immunity targeted through massive vaccination of a large portion of the global roughly 7 billion people is clearly impossible considering the attitudes of the rich nations in hoarding the vaccines as against the struggles of the underdeveloped and developing nations.
“At the time the vaccines were licensed, the data on their effectiveness in preventing COVID-19 virus transmission was not unavailable. We now know that while the vaccines are highly effective against serious illnesses, they are not so effective in preventing virus transmission.
“That is why vaccinated individuals can get re-infected and transmit the virus to susceptible individuals within the population. We teach our first-year undergrads the scientific method and how to draw conclusions based on data. Sadly, in this case some of the best vaccinologists in the world made a wrong call on the herd immunity hypothesis and the world is paying a heavy price,” Mr Okeke said.
Also, the virologist noted that data have shown that the protection offered by the vaccines is temporal and not lifelong, adding that statistics have shown that the protection conferred by the vaccines start to wane after six months.
“The wane in immunity is higher in COVID 19 vaccines based on the messenger RNA platform (Pfizer, Modena) than in those based on the virus-vector platform (AstraZeneca, Johnson and Johnson).
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“Unlike the smallpox vaccine which generated lifelong immunity in which robust immunological memory can be activated and clonally expanded to mop up any new Orthopoxvirus infections, COVID-19 vaccines do not possess the ability to generate robust immunological memory that can effectively nullify the virus if reinfection is to occur months or years post vaccination. Thus, unlike the smallpox vaccine which eradicated the pandemic of smallpox by 1970, present COVID 19 vaccines will not end the pandemic. The waning of immunity in those that have been vaccinated is in part responsible for the current upsurge of cases around the world, particularly in the USA, Israel, and UAE,” he noted.
Ecological, public health factors
The virologist also noted that beyond the vaccine-related factors that could make the end of the pandemic unrealisable are also some viral, ecological and public health factors.
He noted that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that originally led to COVID-19 is error prone when copying its genetic material, noting that “the enzyme that copies the virus RNA material during its replication (“growth”) in host cells makes a lot of errors resulting in mutations (heritable change in genetic material).”
“Most of these mutations are harmless or deleterious to the virus, but one or two of those mutations may confer a fitness advantage to the virus allowing it to emerge as a dominant mutant or variant. Many of such variants have already emerged with WHO classifying them as “Variants of Concern” (Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta), “Variants of Interest” (Eta, Lota, Kappa, Lambda) and several others that are currently being monitored,” he said.
Another reason advanced by the scientist is that unlike smallpox virus which only infects humans, the COVID-19 virus infects other hosts including cats, dogs, fruit bats, among others.
He wrote; “However, although animal to human transmission has not been reported, there are many cases of human to animal transmission. Most scientists agree that the COVID 19 virus emerged because of zoonotic spillover (jump of the virus from an animal host to human). It is thus likely that the virus has animal host(s) that provide the ecological niche for its continued maintenance and circulation in the wild. Therefore, even in the unlikely scenario that the virus is eliminated from the human population, secondary spillover events can occur in which the virus emerges from the wild to cause new outbreaks in humans.”
The lecturer noted in his piece that part of the reasons the virus has continued to spread is the ‘fatigue among the people especially in their failure to observe non-pharmaceutical precautionary measures such as wearing of face masks, regular hand washing and maintaining of social distancing culture.
He accused many rich nations of relaxing or completely abandoning public health measures and urged nations to ensure that these measures are regularly observed by the people.
“Israel, Netherlands, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, many states in the USA removed restrictions, and the virus came back with a vengeance forcing those countries to immediately reintroduce the mitigation measures and, in case of Australia, a complete lockdown of its capital Sydney. The lesson here is that, even when we have vaccines against COVID 19, it is almost impossible to control the virus without strict adherence to mitigation measures like social distancing and wearing of face masks,” he concluded.
He, therefore, listed substantial vaccination coverage, rapid testing and genome surveillance, mandatory adherence to the mitigation measures on face mask and social distancing as well as the development or deployment of new generation of vaccines that are effective in preventing disease and virus transmission simultaneously as the lasting solutions to preventing the pandemic from constant resurgence.